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Radiance
by Catherynne M. Valente
Tor; $24.99; 432pp
Published: October 2015

An overwhelming love of filmmaking suffuses this tale. Valente writes with panache, fervor, a great deal of sparkle and arcane twists. She is a wordsmith equal to the convoluted mastery of China Meiville: she creates in a maelstrom of kaleidoscopic color, ideas, creatures, wardrobe and glitter. Someone has called it “decopunk.”

And all the trappings of Art Deco and Arte Moderne color everything: oh, and a lot of Art Nouveau, as well. Her imagination is unfettered: like an explosion in a huge, decades-old movie prop warehouse crammed with the detritus of the ages.

Everything is beaded, littered with crystals and shining silver and brass curly-cued and sinuous. The women and men are frequently burdened by their fashionable ennui but they have razor-sharp thinking and powers of observation. Their worlds change from chapter to chapter, while the callowhales sail through in images or in the form of their universally imbibed callow milk. (What a creation these creatures are!) Callow milk being the substance of the solar system, everyone drinks or eats it and it is the substance of the callowhales pain. Which binds the universe(s) together. And explains a lot.

Trust me: this is a hell of a tale that wanders from world to world spouting philosophical discussion with a myriad images and daily rushes presenting pictures of astounding complexity and beauty.

The book travels our solar system with impunity. Humans live on all the planets and on most of the moons just as they did in the pulp science fiction tales. There are adjustments—but traveling to Venus or Pluto or the moons of Jupiter is common place—and in many cases blasé and boring. The women bring to mind Louise Brooks and Mary Pickford and the men Ramon Navarro and Rudolf Valentino.

The book also spans time with impunity—but the overwhelming flavor is mostly the late silent film/early talkies era. Talkies exist, but they ultimately are cheap, soul-sucking presentations to the speechless grandeur of silent film. Silent film—all silvery grays and smudgy blacks, startling whites flowing with elegance and wonderful, wonderful…radiance.

Almost all of the characters have something to do with the film industry (save the callowhales) but Valente’s tale focuses on the daughter of a peripatetic filmmaker with a huge appetite for life named Percival Unck.  Severin Unck is raised with an ever changing parade of mothers, not all of them actresses. Percival is the constant (well, as much as he can be) in her life.  Severin is not impressed by daddy’s filmmaking nor is she sucked into the fantasy except when she has to act. She—like so many---grows up driven to pursue her own career in cinema.

The novel follows Severin’s life filled with drama and grande gestures, trailed by a whole crowded soundstage of characters who at one point or other narrate their opinions of Severin, their art and her place in it---there are pages from a journal  written by an ingénue, there are bits of script and pieces of films presenting highlights of  Severin’s life which all leads to: what REALLY happened in the mysteriously destroyed town of Adonis on the edge of the Qadesh Sea on Venus where Severin filmed the beginning of her ill-fated last film and met her end…

My only caveat? Seriously: there is SO much to keep track of, and just as you are getting a handle on the story or the characters in the current pages, the scene shifts and you’ve gone forward or backward in time with a different narrator or different bit of film or writing. I think I understand the author’s underlying reason for this---but I just wish the story had been a bit simpler and less chopped up into the cinematic bits and scripts and interviews. It’s like putting together a story that floats in pieces around you like confetti after a parade.

But damn; it’s gorgeous! ~~ Sue Martin

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