Aurorarama: This glittering Tesla-punk 19th century novel pastiche actually works

Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe ValtatAurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat

Other reviewers on Fanlit will probably be surprised by the number of stars I’ve given this book, because they’ve had to read my kvetching about it for several Status Updates. I finally finished it, and to my surprise, I think in Aurorarama, Valtat succeeded in his Tesla-punk 19th century adventure novel pastiche.

It is early in the 20th century, and New Venice is a city in the Arctic, powered by Tesla-like machines, filled with art, music, entertainment, drugs, censorship, science and magic. The city was founded by the Seven Dreamers, who rest in cryogenic tubes in some undisclosed location. Currently, the Council of Seven governs New Venice, and it is policed by the Gentlemen of the Night. The Council is trying to gain control of the city’s greenhouse, and drive out the native people, the Inuit, while the Gentlemen of the Night wage a reign of oppression against the city’s people. Still, Brentford Orsini, an aristocrat and minor bureaucrat, and Gabriel Lancelot D’Allier, a professor, find the time to get drunk, do drugs, write seditious novels, and go out to listen to music.

Aurorarama is filled with unworldly technology, mesmerism, multiple identities, shamanism, vision quests, hallucinations and pop music. For the first half of this beguiling and bewildering novel, things unfold at an appropriately glacial speed. There is a dead woman in a metal cylinder pulled by sled dogs, discovered by the Scavengers who manage the sewer systems. A clue in the cylinder seems to be directed at Gabriel. There is mention of a mysterious manuscript and a raid at a music club. Gabriel loses one of his female students during the raid, but while escaping from the hospital where they’ve all been taken, he meets a free spirit with a star map tattooed on her back. Orsini, meanwhile, unsuccessfully advocates for the Inuit, but is distracted by the planning for his wedding to Sybil, a musical performer. He is troubled by the appearance of Helen, an old flame and probable wizard, in one of his carefully incubated dreams. There is a riot started by a pop singer who used to be known as Sandy Lake but now goes by Lillian Lenton. Hovering over all this New Venetian strangeness is a black airship flying no colors.

Aurorarama is about 365 pages long. For 181 pages it was a book I found interesting but could easily set aside, and did, several times. On page 182 things got dramatic. The missions of Gabriel and Brentford began to converge, and the book became stranger, more eerie, and more compelling. Gabriel, nearly suicidal, undergoes a harrowing spiritual ordeal. Orsini takes his state-of-the-art ice yacht in the direction of the North Pole, and faces the very frightening Phantom Patrol. It is hard to tell what is hallucination and what is real, what is conspiracy and what is magic. We meet anarchists and royal heirs, spies and rebels, and the enigmatic Polar Kangaroo.

Valtat’s first language is French, but he wrote Aurorarama in English. He delights in wordplay and multi-layered puns. The political machinations of New Venice are called “poletics,” for example. He uses ice in its various conditions, transparent, translucent, reflective and deceptive, throughout the story, and his wit flickers like the light of a Tesla coil throughout the book.

… The weather conditions were both atrocious, because of a cold that made Celsius feel like Fahrenheit, and enchanted, because the frozen snowstorm had decorated the roofs, gutters and balconies with a crystalline lavishness of icicles that money couldn’t have bought — though, to speak frankly, money hadn’t spared its efforts, either.

Valtat successfully recreates the style of 19th century adventure novels. He may be a bit too successful for our ADHD American culture, if I’m any example. Like those in the fin de siècle books he is replicating, Valtat’s women are sleek, gleaming plot mechanisms rather than developed characters. They are either Victims or Heroines. Sibyl falls under the influence of a hypnotist and magician; in case anyone misses the similarity to Georges du Maurier’s Trilby, Valtat names the club where the act takes place Trilby’s Temple. Sibyl, the shallow singer and Stella, Gabriel’s free-spirit, were so undefined (until the very end) that I often couldn’t tell them apart. Helen might be a very interesting character if we saw more than one interaction with her. Lillian Lenton is defined more by her wardrobe than her words or actions. She has great outfits, and during her most dramatic exchange, she is possessed by the spirit of a dead woman; the words she speaks aren’t even hers. While the women individually are not well-defined at all, however, Women have a powerful impact on the outcome of events.

Valtat took several risks in writing this type of book, and overall I think they paid off. I recommend you take the journey Aurorarama offers. You won’t reach the North Pole, but I promise that you will visit territory you’ve never seen before.

Introducing the Mysteries of New Venice steampunk trilogy with a first volume that “entrances and delights” (NPR). In the defense of steampunk comes a literary adventure unlike anything you’ve read before. 1908, New Venice: An ominous black airship hovers in the sky, and the city is hunting for the author of a radical pamphlet calling for revolt. The lead suspect is Brentford Orsini, one of the city’s most prominent figures. As the net around him tightens, Orsini receives a mysterious message from a long-lost love that compels him to act. Brilliant in its conception, masterful in its prose, thrilling in its plot twists, and laced with humor, suspense, and intelligence, Aurorarama marks the beginning of a great new series of books.

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MARION DEEDS is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by Marion Deeds

2 comments

  1. Thank you for reviewing this, Marion! It’s weird — I kept seeing the pretty cover around last year, but for some reason every time I stumbled across a review of it, it was one that seemed to not click with my brain well enough that I could understand what the plot was actually about. Now I finally have an idea of what to expect if I read it.

  2. That’s because no one knows how to explain the plot!

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