Sunday, March 15, 2020

Songs of Chaos

SN Lewitt
Completed 3/15/2020, Reviewed 3/15/2020
3 stars

Dante McCall, the main character of this book, gets into a situation where he doesn’t know what the hell is going on.  For the first half of this book, I could really relate to him because I couldn’t figure out what was going on either.  I was just longing for something, even obnoxious exposition, to let me in on the secret to understanding.  Finally, in the second half of the book, things come together, and with very little exposition.  I have to hand it to Lewitt, she did a good job of esoteric world-building, throwing the reader into it full on, and then slowly revealing what it’s all about. 

Dante is an abnormal, first because he is a child with asthma, and second because he was experimented on under the guise of treatment and the experiment failed, leaving him what was termed asocial and borderline sociopathic.  As an adult, he lives with his brother’s family, but even they can’t deal with him.  Instead of sending him back to the authorities, they send him to space in a cargo ship where he’s picked up by a renegade generations ship.  This ship, the Mangueira, is a Brazilian ship about to celebrate Carnivale.  People on the ship aren’t too concerned about his troubled past.  They are more focused on costumes, glitter, floats, the upcoming Parade, and most of all, samba.  Dante is confused.  He’s not sure if he fits in with these people, but he’s determined not to end up back on earth.  Fortunately, he’s Italian and knows some Spanish and French.  That helps him assimilate into this Portuguese-speaking people.  However, he’s constantly plagued my memories of his past, feeling like he’s losing his mind, especially when he finds that the parrots and macaws on the ship can talk.

Thrown in the mix is a spy from a legitimate Trader ship.  It turns out the cargo ship he was on was destined for this ship, not the Magueira, and they want their cargo back.  The spy, Veronica, is half Brazilian herself, so she can easily slip on board the Mangueira and assimilate.  But the power of Carnivale is seductive and soon she questions her own reality. 

The plot seems quite convoluted.  As noted above, I spent the first half not knowing what was going on.  I enjoyed when the narrative followed Dante because I knew it would always have something in there that mentioned how confused he was.  As his confusion lifts, the plot is slowly revealed.  Once I got to that point, the book became an easy read instead of a slog, which I have to say, is what I felt like the whole book was going to be.  Fortunately, it wasn’t and I really enjoyed that last half.

The characterization was decent.  Besides the confusion, Dante was pretty well developed as an introverted asocial dropped into an environment where everyone is in everyone else’s business and being alone raises questions.  I also liked Skinny Fatima, the Mangueira’s navigator with a well-earned chip on her shoulder for being the butt of the cruel, attractive girl’s ire.  Veronica the spy doesn’t show up until late in the book, but gets a lot of development, and got a lot of my empathy.  There are a good number of characters, but not so many that I lost track of who was who. 

One of the things that really confused me was the samba.  The cast regularly broke into drumming and dancing.  It just seemed so incongruous with the idea of a science fiction novel.  But as the history of this generations ship is revealed, it makes sense.  It’s a symbol of identity and carries with it a spiritual connotation.  In the beginning of the book, we find that Dante was picked up by the authorities while dancing at Carnivale, so it takes him a long time to let himself be overwhelmed by it as the crew normally is.  I felt the same way, feeling swept away by it once I understood its historical and spiritual significance.  Oh yeah, and there’s a dance-off.

I give this book three stars out of five.  I think I would have given it more if more was revealed earlier than it was.  The waiting for the revelations made the book a difficult read for the first half, and for that I dinged it a star.  But the prose is good, the characters are good, and I could feel the exuberance of the dance and the colors and costumes, and even the talking birds. 

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