I’ve heard plenty about An Unkindness of Ghosts, although very little on its actual subject matter; it’s a book that is recommended a lot especially by people who love diverse books. I don’t blame them – An Unkindness of Ghosts is an incredible book that I will probably only ever read once. Because, damn.
Rivers Solomon is a Black, neuroatypical, genderqueer writer, and An Unkindness of Ghosts is their debut novel, which is amazing since it reads like somebody’s 5th or 6th. The book follows Aster, an autistic botanist and healer aboard a generation ship sailing through the stars. For those unfamiliar with the trope, generation ships are massive ships that people make lives aboard, so that their grandchildren or great-grandchildren can eventually live at their new home. It’s a science-fiction answer to the restriction that we cannot yet travel at lightspeed. Aster is a low-decker, using her skills to treat the other downtrodden members of the low decks, and the book opens on… her severing a child’s gangrened foot while the heat has been turned off in the low decks.
It becomes obvious soon afterwards that rather than the future being a post-racism world, the cruelty of the Antebellum South has reasserted itself on the ship Matilda. The pale-skinned upper-deckers look down on the mid- and lower deckers as practically beasts, especially the decks that have a higher-than-average number of intersex children born. Sexual assault and physical violence from the guards is normal – normal enough that Aster spreads a salve between her legs to lessen the damage when rape does happen. The privilege that Aster has is from the kindness of Theo, the Surgeon – son of a previous Sovereign and nephew to the next in the line of succession. As Aster and her friend Giselle decipher Aster’s mother’s notes, they start to realize that there’s an opportunity to change the lives of Matilda’s people – but it might involve starting a civil war.
So first off, I love this book, but holy god on a mountain it needs trigger warnings. I can’t think of a better book that makes a case for them. It also is not YA, and I am darkly amused but sympathetic towards anybody who made that mistake. The trigger warnings for the book include, just off the top of my head: racism, sexual assault, intersexism, psychosis/mental illness, ableism, suicide, medical procedures, dehumanization, transmisogyny, child murder, execution, lynching, sex scenes, gun violence and child sexual abuse. Holy crap. An Unkindness of Ghosts is taking no prisoners. Thematically, it reminds me of the movie Snowpiercer, but with a more distinctly Afrofuturist and anti-racist bent instead of Snowpiercer’s Korean influences.
I think my favourite part of this book was not so much the worldbuilding or plot – they’re amazing but I definitely had trouble following – but the sheer existence of Aster, Theo and Giselle. It’s hard not to internalize the feeling that you need “normal” characters alongside your diverse ones, and Solomon dispenses with that entirely. Aster is intersex, Black and autistic; Giselle is Black and psychotic (actually, genuinely psychotic! not the slur! I’m so happy!); and Theo is either a trans woman or a transfemme genderqueer person; it’s never fully specified. I would never have let myself believed that a character who isn’t just autistic but firmly, squarely and intentionally autistic could be the hero of a sci-fi book like this one. Aster isn’t an “idiot savant” or somebody with a few autistic traits here and there. She’s occasionally non-verbal, doesn’t understand idiomatic language, and has difficulty with social cues – in short, she has the symptoms that I’m the most embarrassed about, and they’re all part of her being the hero of this book. Giselle made me feel even more seen – she’s occasionally mean, often suicidal, and immensely loving despite the voices that she has to ignore.
The writing for this book is also gorgeous. Aster and Giselle’s viewpoints in particular are full of poetic prose, descriptions that are everyday to them but new to the reader, and evocative, slightly offbeat dialogue as they negotiate a neurotypical world. Like I mentioned above, I had a bit of a hard time following the plot itself, but the writing and characters more than makes up for that.
That said, the darkness can be overwhelming. I had to put down this book a few times, instead of reading it in one go – Matilda feels more than a little claustrophobic at times, and I suggest interspersing it with brain bleach, kittens and some gentler books if you’re prone to depression or paranoia.