Source: a review copy was provided by the publisher through NetGalley
This book caught my attention because of its interesting premise and because I seldom read Sci-Fi. The blurb did mention a love story, but we know that when the book isn't a romance, love stories tend to end tragically, so I wasn't expecting a happy ending. It took a couple of chapters for me to realize that as much as I wasn't expecting anything, what I got wasn't what I was expecting at all.
The Best of All Possible Worlds tells the story of Dllenahkh. It’s not clear whether the book is set in an alternate universe that looks futuristic, or if it’s supposed to be a very distant future (1). Regardless, what we do know is that there are different planets and different types of humans that have some genetic differences between them that manifest in their appearance and some psychic traits.
When Dllenahkh’s planet, Sadiri, is destroyed, he goes to Cygnus Beta, a planet that welcomes people from all corners of the galaxy and acts as a refugee camp. There he meets Grace Delarua, the local assigned to help Dllenahkh’s while he searches for any remaining Sadiri willing to go to New Sadiri and establish the new planet. However, things don’t exactly go as planned, mostly because, as their quest will show them, they are looking for the wrong things.
This book is an introspective character study. There is no action, and we follow our two main characters in an expedition through the planet that mirrors their own personal journey. It’s also an interesting take on cultural change, the devastating effects of genocide and the desperate fight of a culture to survive when faced with change and potential extinction. It’s the story of a man who, in search of those willing to rebuild and save his culture, slowly realizes that cultures are alive and constantly changing. But that is all there is. This is not a commentary on genocide, or even a revenge story.
Grace is the main narrator, but it’s Dllenahkh’s book as much as hers, perhaps even more. His culture was one of the most powerful, thriving and respected of the planet system, but after its destruction he became other and went from subject to object; an outsider that doesn't belong, living in a world filled with outsiders that do. It was interesting to see him slowly realize this, and even though we don’t get his POV as often as Delarua’s, the few times we get to see through his eyes, were very enlightening and telling.
We join the characters in an expedition throughout the planet, and in each community they come across different cultures that tells them something about the other as well as about themselves. And although some encounters are whimsical in a way that left me scratching my head, others were poignant and thought provoking. The most interesting part of the story happens when, in a quest to find cultural purity as reflected by physical appearance, they find a town where the inhabitants actually put value on genetics and phenotypes, with devastating consequences. The social commentary is quite heavy-handed, but mostly welcome, although not without flaws.
The two main characters are as different as their narration. The few parts told from Dllenahkh’s POV are in third person, whereas Delarua’s parts are first person. It’s a deliberate choice that clearly portrays how different these two characters are and lets us know that Dllenahkh is detached, calm and introverted, while Delarua is effusive, emotional and extroverted.
The story has a very women-positive feel to it, with strong and diverse female characters that don’t behave the way stereotypes and conventions would demand, but it also gives us the point of view of a hero so overly concerned with species propagation that he sees women as nothing but breeding machines. It was disturbing, especially when faced with an ending that presents us a character thoroughly transformed working under premises that remain unchanged.
As a romance reader, I was painfully aware that there was a relationship brewing between Dllenahkh and Delarua, but my awareness had some wishful undertones, because the love builds so slowly and organically, that almost fades into the background. It was like a constant buzz that we eventually get used to and forget. It’s a beautiful romance that behaves in unusual ways because of the protagonists’ cultures, but that’s grounded in respect, admiration and friendship. Though please, don’t expect an epic love story, or the romance to take center stage, because you will be very disappointed.
I really enjoyed the book, but it is more interesting than it is entertaining, so I would only recommend it to those who find the subject appealing and don’t mind a long book completely devoid of action and where everything but the message is subtle. This means that it is extremely slow-paced and the only thing that changes is the way the two main characters see themselves and each other. By the end of the story the state of the worlds is the same, as is Dllenahkh’s quest.
Note: I can’t write a review and not comment on the unfortunate cover. Almost every character in the book --the two main ones included-- have dark skin. And I can’t help but interpret it as proof that we can read about aliens falling in love, but dark-skinned models on book covers are perhaps too alien.
(1) There are weird pop culture references to things like Indiana Jones that I found confusing and took me right out of the story. My guess is that this is supposed to be an alternate universe, but I thought the references were intrusive and unnecessary.
Review by Brie
A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.
Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.
The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Novel by Karen Lord
Del Rey. February 12, 2013.