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Monday, September 19, 2011

Debris - Jo Anderton

I think I've mentioned this observation in the past, but it continues to prove out the more books I read from the 2011 catalog.  First person person narrators are hip in the publishing world.  I was listening to an Odyssey podcast the other day and Richard Sawyer was talking about point of view.  He made the remark that something like 80% of fantasy and science fiction is written in the third person.  In years past, I would totally agree.  Today it seems that more and more are being written in the first person.  This year alone the genre has seen dozens of debuts in the first person including Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns and Daniel Polansky's Low Town (obviously I could list a lot more, but will use those two as high profile examples).

Being a rather amateur writer and reviewer, I don't know exactly why this shift toward more first person narrators may be happening. It could be in response to the desire for more character driven drama. Or maybe the fact that it seems so many of them are from debut authors is significant? Does writing in the first person make it easier for the reader care about the protagonist? If so it would be a pretty small leap to assume that first person narrations suck in agents and editors at a higher rate.  Just looking at this years Hugo and Campbell Nominees I count five out of the ten as written in the first person and all of them are relatively new authors.  Regardless of the why (although I think it's an interesting question) Debris by Jo Anderton joins the ranks of 2011 first person debuts.

Tanyana, a talented artist and architect, was born the ability to see and control pions - the the building blocks of matter.  When she falls from the top of her newest project under mysterious circumstances the damage to her body leaves her stripped of her powers.  Bound inside a bizarre powersuit, Tanyana doesn't see pions anymore, only the waste they leave behind - debris.  Cast down to the lowest level of society, she must adjust to a new life collecting debris while figuring out who or what made her fall.

 Debris takes a familiar shape without being tired.  There's a character who's powerful, loses her power, ends up at the bottom, and has to claw her way back up.  A mystery is afoot as to how she ended up where she did and of course she's not as powerless as she's been led to believe.  Despite the fact that Tanyana is a grown woman, the arc of the character is a coming of age tale of sorts.  Being reduced in power and influence she becomes forced to reinvent not only how she is perceived by others, but how she perceives herself.

I find that the primary challenge an author has in pulling off a successful novel is making me care about the main character.  In a first person narrative this is doubly true.  Anderton achieves this beautifully, portraying Tanyana as a strong, but ultimately vulnerable woman.  She also successfully identifies a series of ancillary characters that manage to have depth despite their lack of focus.  I do wish that I could have spent some time inside the heads of the other characters recognizing the impossibility of that request given the choice of narration.

Replete with mythology and a strong sense of history, the novel demonstrates a commitment to place centered around the city of Movoc-under-Keeper. A stark divide exists between the haves and have-nots where those at the bottom of society struggle even to eat, while those at the top attend lavish balls and flaunt their power.  This world view is kept in place by a group known only as the Veche who employ human puppets to enforce order.  Order in this sense means making sure people like Tanyana and her crew keep collecting debris and don't focus on the why.

Dark tones run throughout the setting and I often found myself drawing favorable comparisons to Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn for that reason.  The similarities between the two don't entirely end there, but going any further down this road would end up spoiling quite a bit of Debris' reveals and I want to avoid that if at all possible.  I'm not criticizing Anderton for being derivative - not all.  In fact, the plots aren't all that similar and  trying to predict where Debris was going based on my knowledge of Sanderon's trilogy would have been erroneous.  It wouldn't surprise me to hear she hasn't even read Mistborn.  Nevertheless, as someone who has read Mistborn and loved it, the similarities between it and Debris stood out.

While I found some aspects a bit well tread in genre terms, Anderton's debut novel is well worth reading.  Tanyana is an engaging character and her supporting cast is well done despite the limitations of the narration.  Additionally, the plot and setting interact flawlessly and drive each other to their ultimate conclusion.

I should note here that the ending itself is a bit disappointing.  Tanyana never quite has her light bulb moment leaving me to wonder if Angry Robot bought the original manuscript and split it into two novels or their contract was for two books (or more) from the very beginning.  Given the latter (as in the case of Guy Haley, another Angry Robot author I reviewed here), I applaud them for having faith in their authors and giving them the space to take their time telling the story they want to tell.

In any case, I recommend Debris with the small caveats I mentioned above.  As far as I'm concerned, I find my appetite adequately whetted for the sequel, Suited, due out next year. Debris hits stores (and eStores) next week is the U.S. and the following week in the U.K.

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