Every once in a while a book’s defining characteristic isn’t a well-written character, or even an interesting plot, but instead a particularly strong sense of atmosphere that is created and left behind; a feeling, as if being in a dream, that stays with you long after you set the book down. This doesn’t happen often for me, and indeed the last book that had really affected me in this way was Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Read it if you haven’t already and yes, see the movie. Although it departs a bit from the novel, screenwriter and director Alex Garland admits that his goal was to capture this strange sense of atmosphere, this very feeling of being in a dream, and translate it to film. This was more important to him, he said, than copying the book line for line. In my opinion, he definitely succeeded. As an added bonus, he did so beautifully, even if this particular dream was a dark one.
When I picked up Liz Williams Banner of Souls at my local library, I have to admit that I did so on a whim.
I was actually there looking for two or three other books that I was interested in reading at the time, but couldn’t find them on the shelves and only found one of them in it’s book on tape version (not really my thing) when I searched through Hoopla, my library’s free answer to Kindle. (Yes, I have Kindle Unlimited as well, as Amazon might own my soul by now if I didn’t, lol.) In any case, after perusing the sci-fi and fantasy section, I settled on Banner of Souls, Jane Lindskold’s Artemis Awakening, and Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road. After reading just the first few pages of each book, however, I knew that there was something special about Liz William’s writing style that set her story apart. Even though I had little idea what her novel was about, the lyrical nature of her prose immediately drew me in. Her rhythm, word choice, and skillful use of metaphor all combined to weave her invented worlds around me. Like Annihilation, Banner of Souls made me feel as if I were in a dream, or in this case, almost as if I were a somnambulist gliding silently through her definitively alien future.
Indeed, William’s incredibly imaginative world-building is one of the most striking facets of this book. Set so far into the future that it’s no longer known for sure whether it was Mars that colonized Earth, or the people of Earth who first ventured to Mars, the reality that the author creates is so different from our own as to be nearly unrecognizable. One gets the sense that hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps millions, have passed from our own time. There have been so many mass extinctions of humanity in the intervening years, whether due to environmental collapses, diseases, or other causes that she chooses not to delve into, that civilization has had to be rebuilt again and again and an untold amount of history has thus been lost. There is no natural birth anymore, instead children are produced by genetic engineering. Only women are created, though it is never explained when this decision was made and the whys are only hinted at. This mystery doesn’t take away from the story however. Instead, since the only males that are left are “men-remnants”, the descendants of failed or archaic genetic experiments that now run wild across the wilderness areas of Mars, Williams creates the perfect set-up for the Animus, the chimera-like male companion of Yskatarina, to really stand out.
Yskaterina and the Animus are from a planet called Nightshade, which exists at the very periphery of our solar system. In Banner of Souls, humanity is mostly divided between Earth and Mars, but a small number of colonists who wished to continue having men in their society took a ship long ago to a planet they called Nightshade, which is either Pluto or one of the other small planets (or whatever we’re supposed to call them now) so far from our sun that it’s little more than a ball of rock and ice. Nightshade is not only secluded because of it’s location, but also because they don’t allow outsiders in. Mysterious and sequestered, the planet has become the site of the most advanced genetic science known to man. The women there (because even here most of the residents are female) have also come into contact with an enigmatic race known as the Kami who have gifted them with something called haunt-tech. Here Liz William’s talent for invention truly shines as this versatile technology draws it’s energy from a place called the Eldritch Realm – the realm of the dead. “Seance is now science,” one character comments, and indeed, humanity uses something called a blacklight matrix to summon spirits for everything from ship navigation (space and sail) to security. It also forms the basis of The Chain: the device used to move people and supplies between worlds by using the Eldritch Realm as a dimensional bridge through space and time.
It is this haunt-tech and the struggle between the Kami and their allies, and a child named Lunae and her creators and protectors, that form the central plot of this book. You would be forgiven, however, if this were not immediately apparent to you. So strange is this future world Williams has created, and so unique are many of her characters, that it probably took me a good fifty pages to really figure out the basics of what was going on. I think in some cases this might frustrate me, but the writing is so beautiful and her descriptions so fascinating in this particular novel, that I felt my prolonged acclimation to her Universe was well worth it. Her chapters mostly bounce between following three characters: Dreams-of War, the Martian warrior sent to protect Lunae, Lunae herself, the hito-bashira, or “one who holds back the tide”, a specially engineered and quickly growing Earth child who can move through time at will using only her mind, and Yskaterina and her inhuman Animus, the pair from Nightshade sent by Yskaterina’s aunt Elaki to further the plans of the Kami.
The plot is, of course, interesting, and Williams does a good job of making the reader care about both the stakes and the characters fighting for them, but like Annihilation, the real magic of Banner of Souls is in the way you feel when reading it and in how that feeling stays with you for long after. If Annihilation is a dark dream of solitude in which the reader perhaps finds an uneasy beauty in the eerie and the strange, than Banner of Souls is more a bizarre dream populated with so many new kinds of “people” and so many richly imagined landscapes that one almost feels overwhelmed by all of the (until now) unthought of possibilities. As alien as William’s worlds can seem though, what remains untempered by time, tragedy, and technology is the very human capacity for violence, manipulation, and self-destructive behaviors. This is consistently balanced out, however, by our inherent drive to survive, to rebuild time and time again after change and catastrophe. After reading this book, one can’t help but walk away feeling that despite all of our demons, we might just continue to persevere after all. In this way, Banner of Souls becomes a strange and complex dream of hope.
Liz Williams is a British author who’s novels The Ghost Sister and Empire of Bones have both been nominated for the Philip K. Dick award along with Banner of Souls. She’s also written The Inspector Chen series as well as a number of other science fiction novels and collections of short stories. She holds a PhD in Philosophy of Science from Cambridge.