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Spirit, or the Princess of Bois Dormant
Gollancz paperback £12.99
review by Duncan Lawie
Spirit bristles with energy and anger, gradually smoothing into equanimity. A key message of the book is presented in the first few pages: "Believe me, this is the greatest secret I know. Rule your own mind, and you may rule the world. Far more important, you will be happy, no matter what comes. And happiness is all that matters in the end" (page 13). It takes the whole length of the book for these words of Lady Nef to fully filter through to Bibi, although their transformative effect immediately begins.
Gwibiwr, Bibi, is ten years old, the lone survivor of a massacre, cast into a world that we learn about as she does. Those readers who remember Gwyneth Jones' Aleutian trilogy will have some advantages here. The Aleutians discovered Earth, now more generally called 'Blue'. However, it was a human, Buonarotti, who discovered the instant transit device named for her, and which has lead to the discovery of further worlds, of other "numinal bipeds." Why these species should have such similarities is a matter of speculation. "Strong Theory says we're all descended from an ancient Blue hominid spacefaring species that vanished without trace ... Weak says all numinal bipeds are alike due to convergent evolution" (page 122). These competing theories first appear as a leitmotif, a nice piece of hand waving, adding depth to the background.
Later, as Bibi travels 26,000 light years by Buonarotti, there is the suggestion that the aliens they reach are, somehow, the descendants of third millennium humanity. This boggling thought is tied to the conceptions of the Buonarotti device itself. Space travel is a conscious act. The Aleutians have conscious ships; for others, a spaceship is defined only by a group travelling together in the same Buonarotti transfer. This reality is pushed away, submerged beneath the systems which scan and prepare passengers and the codes and keypads for destinations, the choice of travelling unconscious. Even so, "the active complement on a 'starship' is never less than eight persons" (page 457), who join together in a kind of dream time where small tasks - building a house of cards, stripping down a machine - take on the importance, are an analogue, for space navigation. Or so the dreamers/ travellers believe. "When one is in transit ... [o]ne seems to recover fond memories from the narratives of other transits: the details that are lost, and rightly so, as a dream is lost in waking" (page 459).
This sense of a dream affects the whole novel. "But since dreams are all different, and each one is diversified, what is seen in them affects us much less that what we see when we wake, because of its continuity" (page 263). - This quote from Pascal provides the other key message of the book, allied with the idea of 'poetic time', where years are lost, un-thought of even as they pass, mere moments rescued from the abyss.
The novel opens with the clear, light prose of Bibi's youth, the voice a memoir of happy childhood, despite fears and loneliness. The strength of Bibi's character, of her confidence in the rightness of her beliefs aligns with her mentors' confidence in her. Unfortunately, her strength of will drives her, and her friends, into the edges of a collapsing plot and Lady Nef's protection results in her being assigned to their diplomatic mission to Sigurt's World, a face-saving escape for the seniors. This is an adventure, with hair-raising turns and narrow escapes, but the story gradually darkens to fatalism and depression. The seniors think they have moved themselves out of play, but the mission is caught up in the politics of the planet, and Bibi is at the core of this. The setting is increasingly medieval and all the characters know it, but their recognition of their plot doesn't save them. Bibi is a fully fertile human female, a rarity in this setting, and a virgin. The King and Prince of the Sigurtian society they are imprisoned amongst are believers in the Strong Theory, confident that she can be the mother of an heir, a blending of species. The leitmotif of species origin grows to a crashing chord and nightmare descends in the dark winter of the royal residence known as Black Wing.
Eventually released, Bibi is sent to a prison moon for her supposed part in the plot back on Earth. Here we see Bibi at her lowest ebb, and her gradual recovery of sanity when she finds Lady Nef imprisoned too. Lady Nef takes on the further education of her servant in their spartan cell, in a section reminiscent of the business of Buonarotti travel. There is a sense here that the older woman is recreating herself in the younger's mind; that the Bibi we knew has been shattered and is now re-forged in her mentor's image, a feeling reinforced by the change in the shape of the narrative after this episode.
Free and wealthy, Bibi spends the remainder of the book as the Princess of Bois Dormant, always maintaining her distance. The society she moves through sees little of her and understands less - and the story is now told from these perspectives. We readers can get glimpses of her soul from her words, but only because we know what formed her. She sets out on the road of revenge, intent on the undoing of all those responsible for her - and for Lady Nef's - torment. But this is a cool revenge, tempered by her mentor's training, which exploits the flaws of those who allowed her degradation rather than attacking them. More than this, there is the gradual realisation that she can pass on the best she has learned to the next generation - ruling yourself.
This conclusion is almost too neat; it matches the brightness of the opening but softens the nightmares at the centre of the book into a fairy tale ending. Given the subtitle, such an ending is hardly surprising, but it doesn't feel comfortable. Bibi is transformed into the Princess at the turn of a page, but again, Jones has given us the markers. This is not an instantaneous change but poetic time - and the differences in the places she returns to make clear how much time has passed in the world. Indeed, Bibi's rule of herself requires a wilful release of her past and acceptance that the only happy endings are those you allow yourself.
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