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Book Review: AURORARAMA by Jean-Christophe Valtat

October 22 2012

Published by Melville House
2010
Available in Hardcover, Paperback and Kindle editions

In the Stacks: Steampunk

In Short: A mysterious airship hovers over the Arctic city of New Venice, while the authorities seek the author of an incendiary pamphlet.
Recommended: Sort of.

What puzzled him most was that the sled seemed to have come straight from the North. And he knew that north of here there was nothing, and maybe not even that.
– The book’s first mystery

I pushed the deadline on this one. I sat on the book, I pondered it and lived with it for a while, and I let it linger to the point where our beloved leader had to come looking for it (sorry, Rachel!). This is a complicated book. Not in the way **China Miéville is complicated, but complicated in a much more subtle way. I’ll start with the basics and then get into the meat of why this is such a frustrating book.

The story is set in 1908 in New Venice, a Steampunk-inspired city in the Arctic. The buildings are crafted out of ice, and the streets are awash with drifts of thick fog. Anonymous men in carved white bird masks haunt the streets to clean up after the celebration of the dawn’s arrival after the “long Arctic night.” Messages are delivered via pneumatic tubes and people travel by way of carriage-sleds. The writing immediately throws you into this world of quiet, glimmering beauty in the prologue, and it also sets the stage for the unique, lyrical language of the book.

“It was not something, but someone: a lady. Old enough. Dead, or so it seems, as no blur of breath troubled the glass above her thin dark lips and her pale bony face. She wore a sober black dress of antique cut, and on her lap, her long fine hands were placed around an oval, silver-framed mirror that reflected a distance, dreamy image of Chipp’s bird mask.”

The plot of the book could be described the same way. It’s distant and dreamy, an underscore the author uses to bring the reader into the unique and beautiful world he’s created. The narrative alternates between the characters Brentford Orsini – a well-respected man about town, as the song goes, who is a mover and shaker in the local “poletics” – and his friend Gabriel d’Allier, a “peaceful citizen” who is hounded by members of the secret police forced called the Gentlemen of the Night due to their suspicions he was involved in the publication of an anarchistic pamphlet.

Brentford is haunted by chemically-induced dreams of a long-lost love that he believes is summoning him to a reunion at the North Pole. An underground rock star – think a more radical version of Lady Gaga and you’d be close – and a mysterious black airship hovering over the city add to the tapestry of the story and help bring New Venice to vibrant life.

This book is amazing, irritating, brilliant, confusing, and completely unlike anything else written in the past century. The closest I can come to the experience I had while reading is comparing it to discovering a long-lost Edgar Allan Poe novel. Imagine The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket starring C. Auguste Dupin and stretched out to include elements of Steampunk and you might be close to imagining how it feels to read this book.

The sometimes archaic, often lyrical writing style is impossible to simply skim. Some paragraphs require two or three re-readings to fully grasp the meaning. It could be an artifact of this novel’s translation from its original French into English, it could be something altered in the translation, or it could be a deliberate homage to the origins of speculative fiction in the nineteenth century. A character is invited somewhere and responds by saying “That would give me pleasure.” When a character receives unwanted correspondence, it’s described as “a none too polite letter, which we would gladly have shared with the reader if it were not at this very moment sulkily crumpled at the bottom of the wastepaper basket.”

This is supposedly the first book in a series called The Mysteries of New Venice, although Amazon bizarrely lists the second book’s release as “December 31, 2035″ (it is available for preorder, though…). Most likely that’s just a placeholder, but I have a rule to never preorder anything more than two decades in advance. I’m going to read the next book whenever it does come out if just to revisit this amazing world of frozen steam.

Aurorarama is at turns smart, funny (you don’t name your novel Aurorarama if you’re taking yourself completely seriously), thought-provoking, dark and bizarre. It’s a rewarding book, and one that gives back as much as it takes from you, but it’s not a book for a casual reader. You have to have a true appreciation for the old masters like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to put up with some of the tricks of language used by this novel. But if you take the time and let the book work its magic, the story is well worth the effort.

– Geonn Cannon

Further Reading

In the Stacks – Steampunk

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