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The Best of All Possible Worlds
Karen Lord
Del Rey, 320 pages

The Best of All Possible Worlds
Karen Lord
Karen Lord has been a physics teacher, a diplomat, a part-time soldier, and an academic at various times and in various countries. She is now a writer and research consultant in Barbados. Her debut novel, Redemption in Indigo, won the Frank Collymore Literary Award, the William L. Crawford Award, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, and was nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

Karen Lord Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

The Sadiri are a proud and reserved race who are effectively the political leaders of humanity, but as this novel opens their home planet is destroyed by rivals from the planet Ain. Intriguingly, the Ain planet is then quarantined in a way that is far beyond the technological capabilities of humanity, and oblique references to some older, more powerful but now unseen galactic race are dropped throughout the book. One group of Sadiri survivors make their way to Cygnus Beta, a world with a history of taking in strays and exiles.

But these Sadiri are all male, if their race is to survive they must seek out the ancestral ta-Sadiri among the scattered communities of Cygnus Beta while at the same time learning to integrate with the various other forms of humanity that have made their home on the planet.

There is a really good and interesting story that could emerge from this situation. Unfortunately, that is not the story that Karen Lord has chosen to tell.

The story she has chosen to tell, in the voice of the garrulous and giggly Grace Delarue, is a very straightforward romance. Delarue, the second assistant to the Chief Biotechnician of Tlaxce Province, is assigned to join the Sadiri Councillor, Dllenahkh, and his team on their year-long tour of the planet to seek out traces of the ta-Sadiri. We readers know, from the moment we meet them, that Delarue and Dllenahkh are destined to become an item. Everyone else in the novel recognises this not long after. The two principals know it, though without necessarily admitting it, by about the half-way point.

No obstacles are placed in their path, no rivals appear on the scene, no outside events occur to tear these potential lovers apart. The only thing that prevents the novel reaching its inevitable climax before it is even half over is the fact that Delarue and Dllenahkh, along with most of the other major characters in the book, are bureaucrats, with all the dash and daring for which that race is renowned. In other words, form and appearance rule all, strict adherence to the regulations is the guiding principle of the novel, it is only surprising that each incident is not related in triplicate.

I am sure that a romance between bureaucrats can be as passionate, as engaging, as interesting as any other, a story that would hold and touch the reader. But this isn't it. And given the fact that the central drama of the novel is so undramatic, our attention is forced to concentrate on the framing narratives.

Lord's title is taken from the oft-repeated line of Dr. Pangloss, the incurable optimist in Voltaire's Candide: all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. As Candide and his companions are increasingly beset by disasters of every kind, the satire inherent in the Panglossian prescription becomes more and more evident. There is a suggestion that Lord is using Voltaire's work as a model and intends something similarly satirical with it. Certainly it is an episodic picaresque, in which our wandering band travel from one group to another, each new encounter being designed to illustrate the falsity of the title (and, as in Candide, there is one ambiguously utopian interlude along the way). Thus we are introduced to a remote society in which war suddenly erupts, we meet a society seemingly based upon the land of faerie but with ominous overtones, and we encounter a formal, hierarchical society in which slavery survives; similarly there is an episode in which Delarue and one of her colleagues are kidnapped and assaulted, and another in which two other members of the company are trapped underground in a landslide.

There are, therefore, notable but imprecise echoes of episodes from Candide, but without being close enough to read this as an updating of Voltaire's work. Yet, if it is meant to have a satirical edge, there is no notion of what is actually being satirised. It is quite amusing, for instance, when our civil servant heroes decide to invoke child protection services as a way of attacking the slave-holding society, but this is a not particularly novel joke (in 1931 the FBI brought down the gangster Al Capone by charging him with tax evasion), nor is it a particularly telling satire on bureaucracy.

And if you remove the satire from Candide you are left with a series of disconnected and unconvincing episodes which, to be honest, is what we have here.

There are moments of lyricism in the descriptions that show Karen Lord is a writer to watch, but they are surprisingly rare. And the dialogue is clumsy to say the least. Nobody talks normally in this novel, anytime any character opens their mouth it is to deliver an infodump.
  "Cygnus Beta is reputed to have some of the most complex and vibrant cultures in the galaxy. It would be appropriate to study them,"  
Dllenahkh says to Delarue at one point. The flatness of tone might be considered a characteristic of the Sadiri, were it not shared by everyone else in the novel. Even gossipy, giggly Delarue only tells us this is what she is like, we never actually hear any of the remarks that set her and her colleagues giggling. It is also curious that, of the four races of humans that appear to occupy Cygnus Beta, Terrans are the newest members of the galactic civilisation, but all the cultural references (and there are many references to stories, plays and operas) are to Terran culture.

What we have, therefore, is a central love story that fails to catch fire; an episodic narrative that feels more like a sequence of disconnected short stories rather than a coherent whole, and which signally fails to provide the tour d'horizon of a complex, vibrant, multi-racial society we are promised; and an intriguing background situation that is never developed. I couldn't help wondering, as I read The Best of All Possible Worlds, whether this wasn't an apprentice piece that had been unearthed from some bottom drawer in order to capitalise on the (perhaps unexpected) success of Karen Lord's first novel, Redemption in Indigo.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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