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Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The old phrase “planetary romance” has been out of style for decades, and it’s a shame, because it’s just the description we need of Radiance.  The planets in it are not the ones we’ve researched, and they’re not meant to be–they’re more the old romantic notion of a solar system that might contain civilizations and settlements livable to the human race in the blink of an eye.

And not just civilizations but art, and not just art but the movie industry. Radiance is a cascade of images, a filmstrip spliced together from bits of its characters’ lives and works–some of them overwhelming, meant to be, metaphors and bits of tossed away worldbuilding to sum to a felt rather than a logical whole.  Its main character, Severin Unck, is the documentarian daughter of a filmmaker, found on his doorstep; she finds in turn a boy with a horrible wound.  And then there are the callowhales, necessary for the idyll of space travel to be even as much of a flawed idyll as it is.

I loved the callowhales most. I loved the callowhales best. I think some people will stay for the tough-talking detectives, or the drugs, or life in the movies. But for me it was to find out everything, anything I could about the callowhales. Animal, vegetable, or mineral? I found them much more compelling than Severin Unck and her human compatriots in and out of the film world, but they were needed to give the callowhales context, contrast, and–oddly, given their descriptions–heft.  A Radiance of callowhales alone would have swum murkily through the solar system–it took the film industry to bring them into the light.

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