Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers SolomonAn Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Published by Akashic Books on September 18, 2017
Genres: Queer, Science Fiction
Pages: 340
Format: Audiobook
Source: the library

One of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of the past decade, selected by NPR

One of the 50 Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time, selected by Esquire

One of the 100 Most Influential Queer Books of All Time, selected by Booklist

A Best Book of 2017: NPR, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Bustle, Bookish, Barnes & Noble, Chicago Public Library, Book Scrolling.

CLMP Firecracker Award Winner

A Stonewall Book Award Honor Book

Finalist for the 2018 Locus Award, John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and the Lambda Literary Award.

Nominated for the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Novel

"What Solomon achieves with this debut--the sharpness, the depth, the precision--puts me in mind of a syringe full of stars. I want to say about this book, its only imperfection is that it ended. But that might give the wrong impression: that it is a happy book, a book that makes a body feel good. It is not a happy book. I love it like I love food, I love it for what it did to me, I love it for having made me feel stronger and more sure in a nightmare world, but it is not a happy book. It is an antidote to poison. It is inoculation against pervasive, enduring disease. Like a vaccine, it is briefly painful, leaves a lingering soreness, but armors you from the inside out."

"In Rivers Solomon's highly imaginative sci-fi novel An Unkindness of Ghosts, eccentric Aster was born into slavery on--and is trying to escape from--a brutally segregated spaceship that for generations has been trying to escort the last humans from a dying planet to a Promised Land. When she discovers clues about the circumstances of her mother's death, she also comes closer to disturbing truths about the ship and its journey."

"What Solomon does brilliantly in this novel is in the creation of a society in which dichotomies loom over certain aspects of the narrative, and are eschewed by others...Hearkening back to the past in visions of the future can hold a number of narrative purposes...The past offers us countless nightmares and cautionary tales; so too, I'm afraid, can the array of possible futures lurking up ahead."

"This book is a clear descendent of Octavia Butler's Black science fiction legacy, but grounded in more explicit queerness and neuroatypicality."

"Ghosts are 'the past refusing to be forgot,' says a character in this assured science-fiction debut. That's certainly the case aboard the HSS Matilda, a massive spacecraft arranged along the cruel racial divides of pre-Civil War America."
--Toronto Star

Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She's used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, she'd be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remains of her world.

Aster lives in the lowdeck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship's leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer, Aster learns there may be a way to improve her lot--if she's willing to sow the seeds of civil war.

Rivers Solomon first grabbed my attention with their moving, thought-provoking, and gorgeously-written novella The Deep. With their novel An Unkindness of Ghosts, they’ve proven that they’re just as capable with meatier projects.

An Unkindness of Ghosts introduces readers to Aster, a lower-decker living aboard a spacecraft housing thousands of humans without a home planet. Living on the lower levels of a worldship in what’s essentially slavery, Aster and her fellow lower-deckers do their best to survive a system that’s designed to see them suffer. A brilliant scientist, Aster spends her precious leisure time working on medicines in her botanarium and trying to decipher her deceased mother’s encoded letters. With an impending shakeup in the ship’s leadership threatening to throw their lives into chaos, main characters Aster, Giselle, and Theo race against time to find a better way to survive. 

Aster is black, queer, and autistic, and written with so much dimension and honesty. I love her voice: Aster doesn’t actually speak that much, so most of what we know of her comes from her thoughts. Her thought patterns are unexpected, and her logic is very literal – but she’s also super funny. I loved the contrast between Aster’s perspective and her friends Giselle and Theo’s, which are much more “typical” in their structure. Giselle, Aster’s oldest friend and sometimes enemy, is whip-smart and angry, plagued by episodes of psychosis. Her choices aren’t always the best but they do make sense, given what she’s been through. Theo, the only upper-decker in the main cast of characters, is quiet, kind, and deeply devout. He loathes the  ship’s oppressive system and consistently champion’s Aster’s budding career as a medic. Aster and Theo’s connection is quite touching, and I liked their shared thoughts on their gender (both are nonbinary, although Aster does use gendered pronouns).

Aster's voice is compelling and multidimensional. Her thought patterns are unexpected, and her logic is very literal - but she’s also super funny.

The setting and worldbuilding is fundamental to An Unkindness of Ghosts, informing every aspect of the plot – and the characters’ personalities. At its core, the story is about trauma and how it shapes both people and community. Racism and colourism are evident in the structure of the ship: black and other darker-skinner inhabitants are mostly confined to the lower levels of the ship, while the upper-deckers are all white. Brutalization of lower-deckers by guards – agents of the ship’s leadership – is the norm. Solomon Rivers doesn’t shy away from the violence of racism, transphobia, and sexual assault, nor do they glorify it, but reading about it is tough. This is a heavy story, so go in prepared.

As much as I like the characters, I wish that they had driven the plot more. Aster does very little to drive the plot – which could be a reflection of her lack of power – and her actions end up being reactive as a result. My personal preference is for a more proactive protagonist, but I think this setup can work well when the overall plot is tightly constructed and balanced. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case here, so there’s some uneven pacing and a rather abrupt ending. 

A well-written sci-fi novel exploring themes of racism, trauma, and queerness that suffered from some minor pitfalls. Highly recommended.