The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen LordTitle: The Best of All Possible Worlds
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Format: Print (British hardcover edition)
How I got it: I ordered the British hardcover online from Abebooks in 2013 (Because the British version is gorgeous, while the US version features whitewashing. Yikes.)

In the far future, humans have colonized planets across the galaxy. There are the hardy and adaptive Terrans, but there are also others on the human family tree: the analytical Sadiri, the mechanically-minded Zhinuvians, and the charismatic Ntshune. They can all interbreed and have been doing so in an unremarkable fashion for years — until, that is, when Sadira, the Sadiri homeworld, gets wiped out by a mysterious enemy attack.

What’s more, this attack has disproportionately killed Sadiri women. Now, a small contingent of Sadiri men have travelled to Cygnus Beta, a world with a mixed population of all four human varieties, to identify inhabitants with strong Sadiri genetic and cultural heritage in order to incorporate them into a strategic repopulation program.

Yes. This novel deals with planetary genocide. A very SF-nal concept. But it really focuses on two people: Dllenahkh, a reserved Sadiri diplomat leading a genetic survey of various homesteads, and Grace Delarua, a voluble Cygnian civil servant of mixed heritage. Will Dllenahkh’s initiative to find suitable Sadiri wives end up with him finding love too? (Take a guess.)

Writing a second novel sounds like a hell of a tightwalk. Will your audience love your new story, or do they just want you to rehash your old one? How do you avoid being derivative? It looks like Karen Lord responded to these questions by making her second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, as different as possible in plot and structure from her funny, canny debut, Redemption in Indigo, while keeping much of the debut’s voice and charm.

At least, it seems like that to me. Because I read Redemption in Indigo in 2012 and it ended up being one of my favourite reads that year. Its protagonist was warm, relatable, and human, and its voice was sly, humorous, and sprightly. How does The Best of All Possible Worlds compare?

It’s hard to say. My reaction to the novel is mixed.

First off, the good: Grace Delarua, the main narrator, has a voice that’s charming and puckish. Lord excels in writing female characters who are strong, independent, humane, and relatable. There’s a lightfootedness —a joy, even — to her prose that brought a smile of recognition to my face.

However, The Best of All Possible Worlds has a hard time determining exactly what kind of story it wants to be. Planetary genocide is a long-established trope in science fiction, so when the novel began with Dllenahkh learning about the death of his homeworld, I read everything with my Science Fiction Hat on. But Lord doesn’t discuss how or why Sadira gets destroyed — the topic merits about two pages in total. In a more “traditional” SF novel, I’d expect such destruction to be focused on in lavish detail.

However, the central relationship between Delarua and Dllenahkh develops organically, and their slow realization of love for one another is sweet. So, instead of it being a sci-fi novel with romantic overtones, perhaps it’s a romance novel with sci-fi overtones?

Eh, not quite.

That’s because the narrative is extremely episodic, with great big leaps of activity that occur and then recede, affecting the main plot only in small, subtle ways. For example. during a river crossing, Delarua and Dllenahkh fall off a bridge and find themselves in a hidden monastery full of telepaths. On another leg of their journey, Delarua uses her unusual empathic abilities to prevent an actress from being murdered on an opera stage. And in yet another chapter, Delarua and another Sadiri get mugged, and Delarua temporarily gets amnesia that gets cured in some mumbo-jumbo way by having Dllenahkh rewire her neural circuitry via dreams.

So, instead of a sci-fi or a romance, perhaps The Best of All Possible Worlds is an adventure story?

Again, not really; the adventures themselves are given little heft or sense of stakes. Near the end of the novel, two characters get trapped in an underground city, and Delarua appeals to a Sadiri mindship pilot with weird space/time powers to intervene. How exactly this particular pilot manages to coordinate a rescue is never explained. And if there’s one thing I’m primed to accept as a science fiction reader, it’s explanations for spacetime bendiness. It seems that no matter what happened in The Best of All Possible Worlds, I had no idea what reading protocols to apply.

On top of that, I wish the novel had investigated gender and heteronormativity more deeply. For example, there’s a character, Lian, who explicitly identifies as non-binary/gender-neutral and is treated with dignity and warmth in the story. However, Lian was often set up as a person who, by nature of their non-binary status, was “not suitable for” a different character named Joral, a Sadiri male.

In addition, although the entire point of Dllenahkh’s expedition is to find “Sadiri wives” or “appropriate females” to breed with to restore the Sadiri population, the book doesn’t interrogate why their planetary genocide resulted in such lopsided gender ratios. Did the Sadiri previously believe that “a woman’s place is in the home”? Do they now decide to encourage greater gender equality among their diplomatic and professional corps to avoid putting all their gender eggs in one basket? While we’re rooting for Dllenahkh and Delarua to become a couple, we’re doing so within a narrative that explicitly privileges heterosexual relationships and breeding programs. I find that really troubling.

Reading The Best of All Possible Worlds left me feeling both happy and disoriented. Its prose, characterization, and dialogue are all well-crafted. But on a plot level, and on a thematic/political/genre one as a whole, I thought it had significant issues.