I have to confess that I spent at least the first third of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds mostly annoyed and disappointed by the writing. I found the writing flat, the world-building slim, and the character relationships implausible, simplistic, and melodramatic. But around halfway through, the book, despite its flaws, started to grow on me somewhat and by the halfway point I was mostly in, though I still had some major issues.
The setting is a far-future in a universe populated by different types of humans, including Terrans, Sadiri, and Zhinuvians, each with varying degrees and types of psionic powers, such as telepathy or emotional “broadcasting.” When the Sadiri home planet is destroyed, one group settles on Cygnus Beta and begins a search for “Cygnians with a high percentage of taSadiri genetic heritage.” The main character, a Cygnian biotechnician named Grace Delarua, is assigned to liaison with the Sadiri exploratory team, led by Dllenahkh and made up of a handful of other Sadiri, including a married couple and a younger Sadari male on the lookout for a possible mate. The book is mostly episodic at first, with the group heading off to one provincial settlement after another, and then it becomes more focused on the group’s interior dynamics, Delarua’s family dynamics, and a bit more on what happened to the Sadiri planet.
I’ll begin with the flaws as they drove so much of the reading for me, especially at the start. The world-building, as I said, I found pretty slim. We’re given a bare-bones explanation of this universe with very little detail. The same is true on a smaller level with the planet and on a smaller level with the various settlements. This last one was perhaps the most disappointing as I was hoping to get much more in those areas, a la an Ursula LeGuin kind of anthropological look (would have loved to have seen what she would have done with this concept), and while there were moments, there just wasn’t enough consistent depth for me. Even on a sentence/paragraph level I found myself often wishing for at least a little more physical detail or concrete imagery; most of the book is conveyed via dialogue and internal monologue. Finally, though on a more trivial note, I found myself distracted by some of the details we were given. In particular the several references to “classic” movies and film which felt a little forced in terms of the humor and a bit implausible in terms of their surviving into this future (though I did like the Bradbury reference, I admit).
The main character, Delarua, as I said, did grow on me by the end. But at the start she really bugged me. Her character was too superficial, too immature-sounding for much of the start. In fact, there were several times with her and other female characters where the portrayal of the women felt uncomfortably over-emotional and “middle-schoolish.” It didn’t help that the romantic angle was pretty obvious from the start and all went pretty predictably, though I give Lord credit for not rushing it. Dllenahkh fared somewhat better, especially as the book progressed and he became more fleshed out as a character with some added depth and nuance. The side characters are weaker: the young Sadiri is pretty one-note, in fact I’d have to say most are. And some characters fly in and out to little impact. Even the ones that do have a narrative impact are very flat and two-dimensional.
Finally, I didn’t much care for the novel’s episodic structure, though that probably had a lot to do with the above issues. I supposed had the characterization been stronger and the details more vivid, I might have had fewer issues with the movement from one place to another, but as it was, save for a few scenes, I didn’t feel like we spent enough time in each episode to have much of an impact, nor did I feel they were strongly enough linked.
So what happened to make the reading more enjoyable? Well, first of all, the main character seemed to drop a lot of the overly wrought emotions (not fully, but enough) and immaturity. Dllenahkh became much more complex of a character. Their growing relationship, while predictable from the start, was handled in a touching and subtle fashion for the most part. There was also more exploration of the effect of Sadiri’s destruction. There’d been some glimpses of the emotional depth such an event could evoke, but it felt like the potential was more fully plumbed later in the book. Also, the plot seemed to become more focused rather than leaping from one somewhat disconnected event/place to another (to be fair, there are thematic connections between these seemingly disparate episodes).
I did end up enjoying The Best of All Possible Worlds more than not, though I can’t say the flaws ever faded fully into the background. I give it a qualified recommendation, with a real wish I could have given it more. Great concept, but unfortunately the execution doesn’t match the idea.