Originally published in SFX 178, here is my review of Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant (2009), by Gwyneth Jones. (Longer than usual because it was the lead review.) (And no, I've no idea what's up with the cover, beyond the fact that I'm virtually certain it mingles aspects from several different parts of the story.)
Gwyneth Jones isn’t known for her happily ever afters. Or, indeed, for her happily evers. Her characters’ lives are often unromantic, even downright grim. Even the recreated Arthurian love triangle and hippy ‘Rock and Roll Reich’ of her recently-completed Bold As Love series were as much about people using hedonism to combat existential pain and the burdens of power as it was sex and drugs.
Spirit, therefore, might be a space opera - with noose-tight plotting and the author’s characteristic, searching interest in biological SF - but it is a very interior one, focused on the breaking and remaking of an individual mind. The setting draws on several of Jones’ earlier works: in humanity’s past are a Chinese World Empire and an extended alien colonisation by the immortal, genderless Aleutians. These periods are now over, but their legacies still permeate human life, whether on Earth or among the stars. Culturally, this is a decidedly non-Western future, whose dominant notes are Chinese and Central Asian. Socially, the Gender Wars have left divisions, between those who embrace fluidity of sex and gender, and Traditionalists who reject it.
We meet our young, orphaned protagonist – Gwibiwr, or Bibi – as she enters servitude to the elite family of a Great House, a deeply hierarchical entity headed by the powerful General Yu and his wife Lady Nef. Great Houses are bastions of Traditionalism, self-consciously aping gender roles and identities of old, reinforcing social rigidity with advanced technology. Most disturbingly, well-born daughters – valuable, marriageable currency for their families’ alliances and prestige, often artificially created to be as perfect and pliant as possible – are controlled by neurological implants called ‘chaperones’, the key to which is held by their fathers until they marry, when it is passed to their husbands.
Bibi makes the most of her limited opportunities to advance, and she is - if not always happy - content with her lot, serenely secure in her position and unaware of what a cutthroat world this is. But political manoeuvrings far above her head, and the chance witnessing of a crime, seal her fate before she even knows what has happened. Things fall apart, catastrophically, when Yu and Lady Nef undertake a diplomatic mission to the electrical storm-ravaged vistas of Sigurt’s World. Bibi is betrayed, imprisoned, and left to rot, half-mad in a timeless fugue state – echoing the motif of madness in the novel’s faster-than-light travel, the Buonarotti Transit, which works by separating mind from matter, fracturing the self.
Jones’ material is inventive – her non-human races are a compelling blend of the recognisable and the utterly alien – although certain ideas, presumably holdovers from the Aleutian trilogy, remain only tantalising hints here. The plotting and pacing are well judged. Incidents and revelations are held in reserve until they have the maximum impact: occasionally manipulative, but expertly suited to the type of story it is. A standout sequence is the Sigurtian mission, all slow-burning tension and creeping claustrophobia as the characters become aware of their isolation and powerlessness.
With Spirit, Jones has inverted, and illuminated, The Count of Monte Cristo, and not just by transferring it to space. Making the central wronged figure a woman in a repressive world heightens the novel’s interiority and its examination of social power and agency. Bibi must overcome her self-effacing cultural programming, and face down challenges and vulnerabilities that a man would never encounter, before she can emerge as the transfigured Princess, regaining control of her life.
Happily ever after? One battle at a time.