I’m back and I’m here with a book recommendation! While technically I did not buy this book to read it, I do plan to purchase a copy at some point. I borrowed it from my local library and a quick aside — SUPPORT YOUR LIBRARY! Buy books from their book sales and donate money and volunteer because, hellooooo free books, audiobooks and music and virtually unlimited access to real, true information!
But now… I need to tell you about this amazing book I read at the end of 2017 — An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon. It was heartbreaking, it was dystopian, there was no a clean and happy ending — no. It was sci-fi, it was inclusive, it featured LBGTQ+ characters, it featured a neuroatypical lead and you know what? It was a really great story.
Our main protagonist is neuroatypical — likely autistic, though they never come out and say it. She thinks scientifically and very good at growing plants and making medicine from them. Her skills make her the first line of medical defense for the people who live in the lower decks of the HSS Matilda, a spaceship adrift in space seeking a kind of “promised land.”
The ship’s leaders rule with absolute power. A theocracy is thriving on board. The hierarchy of power is indisputable and those with a light skin tone are given preference over those without. Theo, the ship’s head doctor and friend to Aster, is an outlier to this hierarchy. (The relationship between Theo and Aster, though they take painstaking measures to ensure it’s seen as nothing but professional, is also an outlier.)
You see, not only is Theo non-binary (he* doesn’t feel that he fits any gender structure — Aster feels similarly), he’s also mixed race, but has risen to one of the highest ranks on the ship due to his abilities and genius.
The lower deck is where the “slums” are. The people here are poor and people of color. They do the dirty work that keeps the upper decks happy and fed… like working the fields and fueling the ship — a very dangerous job that typically causes early death.
Theo’s uncle comes to power and is, somehow, even more tyrannical than the leaders before him. He knows rebellion is brewing and so he does unspeakable things to squash an uprising. (I can’t give too much away here because I don’t want to spoil the story.)
When Aster learns that the journals her mother wrote before she died (under mysterious circumstances) are written in code, she sets out to decipher them. In the process she becomes an improbable leader of a resistance and a symbol of hope in hopeless times. She has the audacity to question authority to learn more, to progress, to be free… and I’m not going to lie, bad things happen.
At times, I felt hopeless for her. Other times, my heart ached for everyone around her. But this is a story about resisting tyranny and trying to be better, to lead people out of darkness to a more beautiful place.
The “promised land” cannot be found by leaders who force others down, keeping them in submission. It’s a beautiful, powerful story for people who are oppressed, it reminds its readers to be proactive — to do what we can to make the community around us more fair by questioning if there is a better or different way to operate.
It also reminded me that the oppressed have always been the ones fighting for the oppressed. Elevating these stories to a larger audience is important because they should not be fighting alone. They shouldn’t have to fight to be heard or be treated fairly in the first place.
Society should not place higher standards, stereotypes or more obstacles in front of a person because of skin tone, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class or gender identity. These aspects of a person’s life have nothing to do with who they are as a person, their talents or their worth as a fellow human being on this rotating rock we call home.
I gave it 5 well deserved stars. An excellent, new voice to read — especially for black history month.
The author, Rivers Solomon, lives in the UK. An Unkindness of Ghosts is their first novel and I can’t wait to read more. You can read a great interview with River on The Rumpus where they break down the race aspect of the story much more clearly than I ever could as a White Lady.ᵀᴹ
* I use “he” as the pronoun here because Theo generally presents as male in day-to-day life, embracing their true gender-identity only in very private moments. This is clearly due to the religiously conservative/fundamentalist nature of their oppression — a non-binary identity was taboo/dangerous. They lived with this constant gender performance that didn’t feel authentic, but happened to give them more authority and access to important locations in the ship — something Aster needed to learn more about her mom and to advance a rebellion.