Spirits of Glory by Emily Devenport
Recently, author Emily Devenport approached me with a request to review her young adult novel Spirits of Glory. I was not familiar with Devenport, but a quick search told me she has published several novels under three different pen names, one of which earned her a Philip K. Dick Award nomination. Spirits of Glory (2010) is self-published, and I tend to avoid such books after a number of negative experiences. Given Devenport’s resume, however, I wasn’t too worried I’d end up with a poorly written piece of fiction, so I accepted a review copy. It turned out to be one of my better decisions in regards to self-published material. Spirits of Glory turned out to be a good short novel with one of the more intriguing main characters I’ve come across in young adult novels.
Amber “Hawkeye” Rodriguez has been fascinated with the Disappearance since her early teens. In this event, some two centuries past, the people of the North found the people of the South gone. They simply disappeared without a trace, leaving behind empty cities and a ruined highway. Now, at nineteen, she is one of the authorities on the subject and spends her days researching the matter in detail. One day a Dr. Tutuola shows up on her doorstep accompanied by eight Neighbors, humanoids with whom Amber’s people share the planet. Before she knows it, Amber is on her way south, on a journey through an abandoned land where time fractures, ghosts roam and the Southern Gods set the rules.
Spirits of Glory uses elements from both fantasy and science fiction. The planet the story is set on was colonized centuries ago, and although there doesn’t seem to be any contact with Earth, these origins are still remembered. We hear of genetically engineered species, space stations and strange fluctuations in the flow of time on the planet that ordinary physics seem unable to explain. On the other hand, there are ghosts and gods that appear to be native to the planet as well. It is a strange place by any standard, a planet where many unexpected things can happen. I think Devenport was a bit too ambitious in her choice of setting here. At 128 pages, Spirits of Glory is a fairly short work. Many aspects of the planet and the community of people that settled it remain underexposed.
Hawkeye is an unusual protagonist for a science fiction novel. Although she is still in her teens, she is wise beyond her years, which is common on a planet where time plays tricks on its inhabitants. She suffers from severe pains in her hip and knee joints, and once on the road, often needs help to get around. One of the Neighbors uncharitably describes her as “one who looks like a girl and walks like an old woman.” It has made her the aim of ridicule for much of her life, and the harassment continues with a group of scavengers, people who take the risk of travelling into the South to extract objects of value at the behest of the Northern Gods. The way she deals with it is impressive. In a series of flashbacks Devenport reconstructs the gradual realization that such harassment is not something she has to put up with. The journey into the south is the final element in this process that transforms her into a woman confident in her abilities. It’s one of the most appealing aspects of the novel.
For most of the novel, Hawkeye travels through the deserted south, a landscape that is not so much apocalyptic as surreal. The place is empty, but even though it has been centuries, it looks like the people who lived there have only recently left. Combined with the ghosts that show themselves regularly and the time fractures that can hit unexpectedly at any moment, the setting becomes strange and unsettling. The reader constantly gets the impression that something is not quite right on this world. Hawkeye shows great courage moving into this territory that has been off limits for two centuries. She can’t run away from danger, after all, and is largely dependent on help from the Neighbors to keep her safe.
These Neighbors are another mystery. They are human in appearance, but their behaviour certainly is not. Even their presence on the planet, unnoticed until quite some time after colonization, is a riddle that Hawkeye has yet to solve. They intrigue the academic in Hawkeye and she longs to thoroughly study them now that she has the opportunity to be in their presence. Neighbors are notoriously uncooperative, though. They will not answer the most important question of all: why? Push them too far and they will not answer at all. Throughout the novel, curiosity wars with caution as Hawkeye tries to gather information while avoiding asking the wrong questions. This gets even harder when the relationship between Hawkeye and the Neighbors becomes more personal. Devenport carefully stays just short of the line where the lack of information about the Neighbors would become irritating to the reader, and the book is well paced.
I enjoyed reading Spirits of Glory. It is a novel packed with interesting concepts, which blends science fiction with more fantastical elements into a unique, surreal world. There were a few things in the finale of the novel that might have been handled differently. I suspect not all readers will be thrilled by it. For me, that wasn’t enough to spoil the novel, though. I thoroughly enjoyed Hawkeye’s journey of discovery, both on the personal level as well as the exploration of her world. I’m not entirely sure Devenport made the most out of the setting; especially in regards to the gods, I am left with a lot of questions. Then again, good fiction does not necessarily provide all the answers. Spirits of Glory is more than worth your time. Go read it.