Icon: A tense fashionpunk political thriller

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Icon by Genevieve Valentine speculative fiction book reviewsIcon by Genevieve Valentine

I think Genevieve Valentine has invented a new subgenre: the fashionpunk political thriller. So far both books in THE PERSONA SEQUENCE, Persona (2015) and Icon (2016), fit into this fashion-forward category, where appearance is everything… or at least, so it appears.

… In this light they looked like ghosts or witches, something powerful and untouchable and lovely, even in pencil skirts and jeans and sequin tops and Kipa’s sensible cardigan with the top button of her blouse left undone.

Suyana Sapaki is the Face for a young political jurisdiction called the United Amazon Rainforest Coalition. Faces appear at diplomatic events, committee meetings and general meetings of an international group called the International Alliance, which has replaced the United Nations. Faces cast votes. They cast the vote they are told to cast. They speak the words that are scripted for them by people we never see. They look good; they know how to pose, how to smile and sign autographs, how to walk a red carpet. They are no more “diplomats” than reality television is “real.” In case we’ve forgotten from Persona, the very first page of Icon reminds us that Suyana doesn’t have a life. She has an itinerary.

(This review may contain mild spoilers for Persona starting here.)

Suyana survived a conspiracy against her life in Persona, and in Icon, she isn’t going to let anyone forget that. She chooses a wardrobe that shows off the scar the bullet wound left. Her survival and triumph have given her and by extension her country higher status, and Suyana is now officially dating Ethan, the Face of the United States. The emphasis is on “officially.” Their dates are scripted, down to what they will order at the restaurant when they go out for dinner.

As the book opens we discover that the relationship between Ethan and Suyana seems to be heating up, that Suyana’s personal paparazzo Daniel Park is still her “snap,” and that Suyana and Daniel are still more than they seem. Soon, Suyana realizes that she and her country are in political jeopardy again due to the machinations of a Face from one of the powerful First Nine countries who founded the IA. The group that calls itself Chordata, which is willing to use terrorist tactics to achieve its goals, is still active too, and once again Suyana may be in more than merely political danger.

I thought Icon opened more slowly than Persona, and at first I was irritated by the focus on the manufactured relationship with Ethan. Suyana’s emotions are in conflict about Ethan and Valentine depicts this masterfully; sometimes Suyana hates him, sometimes she is fond of him, and more than once she thinks about where she would stick the knife. Steadily, though, the tension builds, as Chordata comes back into the picture, Daniel struggles with his unrequited feelings for Suyana, and Ethan’s real role starts to become clear. The emotionally complexity reminds us how much, in this story, happens beneath the surface.

This book takes place almost entirely on the surface, and that is a triumph. It isn’t a shallow book. It’s a book about people who live their lives in a 24-hour newsfeed. The “snaps,” employees of TMZ-like newsfeed businesses, are treated like nuisances, but every Face has identified their personal snap and they often arrange situations to give a snap a perfect photo or a “scoop.” When Bo, another snap, saves Suyana’s life, he comments that, after all, Suyana gave him a good photo. Without thinking much, she replies:

“I gave you three.”

He looked at her as if she were a spider. The corner of his mouth turned up.
“You’re welcome,” he said.

Photo ops and access are currency; wardrobe is both a weapon and a lexicon, and image is everything. The world and the story share DNA with William Gibson and John LeCarre; in addition to body-mods like Daniel’s implanted camera, Icon often shares a Gibson-like sensibility that really does make it fashionpunk. The space between a metaphorical knife in the back and an actual blade between your ribs is, literally, the distance from the sidewalk to the side alley. Like LeCarre, these books meditate on the abuse of power, political cynicism, and exactly what is the common good.

I had two tiny problems of vocabulary with Icon. Twice Valentine uses the word “flashbulbs” to describe camera illumination, but I think flashbulbs haven’t been used in about twenty years. She just be using the term for flash attachments, but in a book set in a near-future, it’s a bit jarring. Even though the word “snaps” for the shadowy photographers makes good sense and “snapshot” is still in common use, it jarred me a little bit too. Not much, but so much in these books is precise and perfect, so these tiny flaws stand out. As I said before, I felt that the focus on Ethan at the beginning of the book, even though it was needed, contributed to a slow start. These things make this a four-and-a-half star book with a five-star concept.

Suyana, like the other Faces, is treated as less than a person. She is an object to be directed and acted upon. Her struggle is to become someone with control of her own destiny. Her other struggle is to stay alive. Suyana’s choice for autonomy comes at a high cost. At the beginning of Icon, I worried about whether Suyana would lose her life. By the end of the book, I was worried that she had lost her soul. Valentine has me just where she wants me.

Published June 28, 2016. Suyana Sapaki survived an assassination attempt and has risen far higher than her opponents ever expected. Now she has to keep her friends close and her enemies closer as she walks a deadly tightrope—and one misstep could mean death, or worse—in this smart, fast-paced sequel to the critically acclaimed Persona. A year ago, International Assembly delegate Suyana Sapaki barely survived an attempt on her life. Now she’s climbing the social ranks, dating the American Face, and poised for greatness. She has everything she wants, but the secret that drives her can’t stay hidden forever. When she quickly saves herself from a life-threatening political scandal, she gains a new enemy: the public eye. Daniel Park was hoping for the story of a lifetime. And he got her. He’s been following Suyana for a year. But what do you do when this person you thought you knew has vanished inside the shell, and dangers are building all around you? How much will Daniel risk when his job is to break the story? And how far will he go for a cause that isn’t his?

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, 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.

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2 comments

  1. If “fashionpunk” isn’t a word yet, you need to get your stamp on it ASAP. :D

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