An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon. This was the most difficult book I’ve read all year and perhaps the most worthwhile. The story takes place on a generation ship, where the wealthy white people live in luxury on the upper decks and the black people* live enslaved on the lower decks, forced to do manual labor and endure the cruel oversight of the white people (who have developed a(n even) weird(er) religion to excuse/justify their behavior). It’s definitely a book filled with vivid and shocking (and shockingly mundane) cruelty and it can be difficult to read because of that, but that’s kind of the point. However, the characters were fantastic and Rivers Solomon managed to infuse a great deal of humor into the narrative and overall this book was heartbreaking but so worth your time.
In the first scene, our protagonist, Aster, a gifted chemist and healer, is called upon to amputate the foot of a child, Flick. The foot has become gangrenous due to frostbite because of the cold conditions on the lower decks.
“Guards be calling Tarlanders dogs all the time,” Flick said, hand on hip.
Aster twitched at the sound of the familiar word; she hadn’t heard it in ages, but it still stirred a sense of belonging. Tarlanders were the inhabitants of P, Q, R, S, and T decks, and it was as close to a nation as anything on Matilda.
“The guards are hardly a compass by which to measure right and wrong,” said Aster.
Flick’s eyes flashed open in what was presumably mock shock. “You gonna get struck down for saying that, woman. Don’t you know that Sovereign Nicholaeus is the Heavens’ chosen ruler? And that the guards are Nicolaeus’s soldiers and, by extension, soldiers of the Heavens? A spurn to them is a spurn to the Heavens direct,” Flick said in a high-pitched voice.
“Well, let’s hope the Heavens exact vengeance after I’ve amputated your foot. I wouldn’t want you – righteous defender of the moral order that you are – negatively affected by my sacrilege.” Without meaning to, Aster smiled.
“How about if you promise to do my surgery up good, I’ll write a letter to the Guard begging they spare you? I been practicing my vocabulary and I already know what I’m gonna say. Want to hear?” Mischief draw Flick’s face into a sly grin.
“Dear Sirs,” Flick began before loudly inhaling, “On account of there being no heat down here on account of there being no electricity on account of the brand-new energy rations so thoughtfully and nobly and honorably imposed on the steerage decks by Sovereign Nicolaeus on account of the blackouts – Aster fell prey to a brief fit of hypothermia-induced delirium and spoke out against you in her maddery. She’s healed up now so you don’t have to worry about it happening again. Yours humbly, deferentially, meekly, and respectfully, Flor “Flicker” Samuels.” Flick erupted in laughter and took a bow. “Opinions?”
“Your sarcasm reveals clear disregard for the sanctity of the Sovereign’s Guard, which I appreciate,” Aster said, blowing into her cupped palms before vigorously rubbing them together.
Aster must create an improvised stove from rags and alcohol to warm her hands enough to perform the amputation. When it is over, Flick’s family give her a warm cloak, which she protests is too much for services rendered. She’s told the payment is mostly for the idea of the stove, because ingenuity and cleverness are valued by the people of the lower decks.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is filled with small acts of cleverness, kindness, sedition, defiance, and rebellion. These small acts eventually lead to a tipping point, setting off great acts of rebellion. Will these great acts be enough to free the people of the lower decks? It’s definitely worth your time to find out.
*including the mixed race people who cannot “pass.” Those who can pass are taken from their mothers either by their white fathers or by others and given fyi white families.