Radiance, by Catherynne Valente, is one of the strangest books I have ever read in the best way possible. For starters, I quit this book three times before I finished it. Despite that, I am extremely happy that I ended up sticking it out until the end. The book is one-of-a-kind, and very hard to categorize. Despite this, I am going to do my best to give you a good idea of the book so that you can try and decide if it is for you.
So what is Radiance? Radiance is part biography, part eulogy, part murder mystery, and all parts film. The book explores a world set in the 1900’s where humanity populated the solar system with steampunk-esk technology (called “decopunk” for lack of easy categorization) and started an intergalactic Hollywood. In this Universe of blockbuster films, the book follows the story of a daughter of a famous film maker, Severin, as she breaks away from traditional movies and starts to make the first documentaries. At the start of the book you are told that she very successfully made five documentaries, all on the mysteries in the solar system, and that the final film was a disaster resulting in her death. The book is the story of her life, a eulogy from her family and friends, and slow break down of the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death. All of this is contained in a book that is also a gigantic monument to the beauty of film making. If you have even a passing interest in film, this book will be a must read for you. The book revels in the glory of film making, and does an incredibly job of showcasing the power of movies.
In addition to its eclectic subject matter, Radiance uses an impressive number of methods to narrate the story: radio broadcasts, commercials, diaries, interviews, scripts, memoirs, classic dialogues, and of course movies are all used to narrate the story and explore the world. The variety of styles is impressive, even more so due to the fact that each has different visual styles and cues (the book itself is gorgeous). Unfortunately, while impressive this is also the start of some of my problems with the book. While the myriad of styles is fun, there is a lack of consistent quality with them. I found I always liked the movies, commercials, and dialogues more than other narrative styles. This may be due to a difference in quality, or it might just be due to preference, but either way it is very likely that most readers will have a fairly inconsistent experience and opinion of the book as they read through. This fragmented storytelling also kept me from realizing what I was reading for a pretty long time. The summary I gave at the start of this review was not at all clear at the start of the book. It took me a good 40% of the book before I grasped what I broke down previously.
I also quit the book three times. There is a lot of “fluff” in the writing. A lot of time is spent extolling the virtue and beauty of film making, which is not a subject I particularly identify with. I found the pacing to be inconsistent, with the book occasionally lulling about for multiple chapters in a row with little progress. And yet, despite everything I just said I am incredibly thankful that I stuck it out until the end. The mystery the book is built around is superb, and actually felt like it was worth the slow build. The world is extremely interesting and very well built, and the science and technology is so original that they had to invent a new subgenre of sci-fi/fantasy just to categorize it. On top of all of this, we have Severin. The book stands as a tribute to her life and it does a fantastic job. By the end of the book I felt like I really knew her and was crying for the loss. The book did a great job of actually making me care about her, which made the story all the more powerful.
Radiance just missed my top 10 of 2015, but it was definitely the most original and unique book I have read this year. I think this is possibly the hardest review I have ever done because at the end of the day only you can decide if you want to read this one. I hope this review has provided tools or insight into understanding the book better, but I guess I tentatively recommend Radiance, by Catherynne Valente.
P.S. – I want to thank my reader who nominated me for a Stabby on Reddit (vote for The Quill to Live here), it is an honor and I am happy for all of you who have found the site through the voting. As always thanks for reading!