Don’t you love a debut novel? Admittedly in this trashfire world I am prone to getting sentimental about things it is insane to get sentimental about, like tiny foods and sitcom episodes where people discover emotional truths about themselves; but I do feel sentimental about debut novels and the hope they represent. There’s something quite magical about an editor believing in a brand new author, and there’s something even magical-er about an author setting their first-ever book into the world like a message in a bottle, searching for their exactly-right community of readers.
Which is why I’m mightily grateful to Sarah of The Illustrated Page for putting me onto Rivers Solomon’s debut, An Unkindness of Ghosts. It’s a dystopian story about a generation ship, the Matilda, that sharply segregates its people by class. The (mostly darker-skinned) citizens of the lower decks are subject to forced labor, daily headcounts, floggings if they step out of line, and the whims of the guards who patrol their decks. In spite of this, our heroine Aster has managed to teach herself medicine and science from the gen ship’s archives and wangle a friendship with the ship’s revered priest/Surgeon, Theo. Poring through her late mother’s journals, Aster realizes that there may be a way to escape from the Matilda, but it will require all of her resources — and perhaps cost the lives of those she loves — to make it happen.
Friends, An Unkindness of Ghosts is dark. The lives of the people on the lower decks are filled with brutalities perpetrated by those in power, including the second in line for the throne of the Matilda, a cruel Lieutenant who resents Aster’s friendship with Theo. Solomon isn’t as graphic with the sexual violence as I was fearing, but violence of every kind stands as a constant threat, and regular reality, of Aster’s world. So be braced for it.
The book’s light is Aster’s survival, and her insistence on finding (or, more often, making) pockets of beauty and joy in a world that tries to deny that she’s deserving of either. She’s angry and dogged, and she most wonderfully refuses to pretend to be anyone other than who she is. She’s black and autistic and intersex, and no matter how many people tell her that one or all of those things makes her worthless, she persists in knowing her own worth, valuing her own intelligence, and chasing after the things she wants. Here’s what author Rivers Solomon says about the book and the question that stands at its center.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is a brutal novel with hope at its core, and it should make you really excited for everything Rivers Solomon is going to write hereafter. It’s published by Akashic Books, an independent publisher I absolutely cherish.
Thanks to my lovely friend Alice for picking me up an ARC at BEA this year! If you want to read more by/about Rivers Solomon, you can check out their Patreon for regular content (poems, flash fiction, short essays, etc).