My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.
When the autopsy of Matilda’s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.
Warnings: slavery and on-page abuse of the lowerdecks, including dehumanization, lynching and execution, mentions of sexual assault, homophobia, mentions of suicide, allusions to child sexual abuse
Note: Not a YA novel
An Unkindness of Ghosts had so much to unpack – its plot primarily deals with slavery on a generation ship hurtling through space to an unknown destination and the mystery of two deaths, but the story being told doesn’t exactly make it central and looks through the life on such a ship where a dogmatic governing system aims to maintain order with brutal force. Aster, who is a member of the Q deck, is a trained, and highly-sought after medical professional, who apprenticed under the Surgeon General (Theo) who is considered a genius himself, and who holds her in high regard; her mother had supposedly committed suicide after a bout of mysterious illness, and now, the ruler of the ship is showing a similar illness, so she tries to investigate what her mother was upto 25 years ago and what it had to do with the ship itself.
I would like to tell y’all at the start to take the warnings above seriously – the book doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh conditions of the ship, which operates like the plantations of the South, and are tormented by the guards enforcing them indulging in violent assault, which is often sexual in nature, and the cruel rulers resort to execution. Aster, like the others on her deck, have to avoid the guards’ cruelty whenever possible, and she particularly is a target of the Lieutenant, who is also the next-in-line to lead the ship, who sees her as a distraction to his nephew, the Surgeon General. She has a secret botanarium on the ship where she creates all her formulations and drugs, and it is her sanctuary, and also for Giselle, her best friend. Giselle and Aster both work to decode her mother’s journals, and while they have a close bond, there is also a tension between the two of them. Aster’s relationship with Theo, meanwhile, is complicated in that they are struggling to define what it is they feel for each other, but also how powerless they are in their lives makes them not immediately progress further.
One thing that I found interesting about the setting of the book is that it is not overtly science fiction – there are no high-tech advances aside from the mini-sun they have going and the field decks, the slavery situation practically takes you back a century or two, and yet, it subtly emphasizes that is science fiction by the very fact that they are trapped in a ship. It is dystopian, obviously, in that the governance and religious system alludes to our current world but more extreme, but the themes of revolution are both quieter and explosive. Even the plot doesn’t go exactly like you expect – I thought the illness of the Sovereign would be crucial, but it turns out to be just another event on the ship, even with the change of leadership, because for the people in the lowerdecks it is only an increase in the brutality they face. The lowerdecks are aware of their oppression, but are powerless because (a) the guards and the executions, and (b) they are trapped in space, and by the end both these problems are resolved in slightly unexpected manners.
I will confess, though, I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the ending, because like, what the hell happened, but also I get what happened, and what might happen, but it still feels like the book didn’t exactly give me what I hoped for? It is also pretty abrupt, and has sort of a rushed quality, which maybe is because it deviates from the pace set during the book, and while it delivers on the build-up of the character and setting during the book, it also keeps you feeling like something wasn’t fully explored? Anyway, aside from that ending, the book is such a great read.
Is it diverse? Black, neuroatypical and intersex main character, with major PoV characters including queer Black neurotypical character, queer biracial gender-non-conforming character, and Black character; also an OwnVoices title