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

Like most of her work, Cat Valente’s latest novel is unusual.

And brilliant.

After spending several years with her YA “Fairyland” series, Valente’s first adult novel since her 2011 retelling of Russian fairytales Deathless, Radiance is a loving tribute to the golden ages of science fiction and Hollywood. The novel is set in an alternate universe where interplanetary travel began in the mid-19th century, humanity has colonized the solar system, and Thomas Edison’s heirs own the patents on color filmmaking and sound recording.

It is the story of Severin Unck, a documentary filmmaker and the daughter of Percival Unck, himself a pioneer of the Moon’s silent film industry. Severin disappeared in 1944 while filming The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, documenting the mysterious destruction of a town on Venus. Several members of her crew were killed — those who survived, including Severin’s lover Erasmo St. John and a mysterious orphan named Anchises, were permanently scarred. The final cut of her film was burned by one of the survivors in a fit of madness on the flight back to Earth.

Percival is determined to discover what happened to his mysterious daughter, or at least provide his own story of her disappearance.

Valente’s plot unfolds through a variety of media — a puzzle-box that jumps between screenplays, newspaper columns, radio plays, commercials and diaries, exploring Severin’s quest for the truth and contrasting with her father’s obsession with creating a story. We learn of her mysterious birth, appearing on Percival’s doorstep like an orphan, and about her relationships with Percival’s many wives, as well as her adventures throughout the solar system.

And it is all couched in Valente’s gorgeous prose — dense and evocative but not too purple. As a lover of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco, her writing hit all my sweet spots in its postmodern deconstruction of the space opera.

The main storyline follows Percival’s film(s) about his daughter’s disappearance, focusing on Anchises. His quest to film the story manifests first as a gritty noir, with Anchises as a hard-boiled investigator on Uranus. It then morphs into a gothic drama set on Pluto, where one of the survivors of The Radiant Car has set himself up as a lord of misrule amidst the American lotus-eaters of the distant planet. Finally it transforms into a children’s story, exploring Anchises’ childhood on Venus and his love of the “callowwhales,” the mysterious creatures whose “milk” is the key to mankind’s travelling the universe.

And while several of Radiance’s mysteries are answered through the various narratives, the reader is left with just as many questions. As Valente writes:

“There is no such thing as an ending. There are no answers. We collect the pieces where we can, obsessively assemble and reassemble them, searching for a picture that can only ever come in parts. And we cling to those parts. The parts that have been her. The parts that have been you. Your chest, your ribs, your knees. The place where her last image entered and stayed. We have tried to finish Percival’s work—to find the Grail, to ask the correct question. But in some version of the tale, Percival, too, must fail, and so must we, because the story of the Grail is one of failure and always has been. He did not finish his film. We could not finish it for him. There is no elegy for Severin Unck showing in a theatre near you.”

And ultimately it is up to the reader to provide their own answers, to draw their own conclusions of which story is the truth, if any. Or if it even matters.  Severin is gone, whether dead or alive, it does not matter. Her story is finished either way. ~~ Michael Senft

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