Here is a must-read 2015 novel by the author of Mechanique; Tales of the Circus Tresaulti, and The Girls of the Kingfisher Club. In Persona, Valentine attempts a full-throttle near-future science fiction novel, and nails it.
In Persona, global politics is handled through the International Assembly (think super United Nations) and the diplomats who attend conferences, summits, and symposia are known as Faces. They are chosen for appearance and poise. Their talking points are developed by Handlers, and ultimately by the IA’s central committee. As you might expect, behind the façade (play on words intended) of the IA, a group of rich and powerful countries called the Big Nine make all the real decisions.
Suyana is the Face for a newly formed country, the Amazon Rainforest Confederation. Her country struggles to fend off the rapacious grasp of the USA, and Suyana has fallen from grace after there was an attack on an American installation in her country. She has a new handler, and hopes to make a comeback in Paris, but within hours she is the victim of an assassination attempt.
Persona’s political world is dynamic, untrustworthy, and layered with veils and masks, as the title indicates. It’s not amazing that Valentine was able to create a world this complex. It’s amazing that she was able to do it in just over 300 pages. Persona doesn’t waste the reader’s time with long expositional passages of the history or the background, how the IA came about or other details. We are in Suyana’s skin and, like her, we hit the ground running. This, combined with the way Valentine uses new-tech, reminds me of William Gibson’s novels. You stick close to the character and you pick it up as you go — and you will pick it up, because Valentine does an expert job of seeding in the details you need to understand what’s happening.
In this world of masks, performances and veils it might have been tempting to portray Suyana as a naïf, an innocent, but she has veils of her own, and so does Daniel, the paparazzo or “snap” who helps her as she is running from the unknown assassin. We are as baffled as Suyana and Daniel about who to trust, and certainly they shouldn’t even trust each other, but Suyana’s background makes her an intriguing character, especially if it’s true that she might have brought the assassination attempt on herself.
The story runs on a tight time-frame, taking place in just two days. There is an awkward time-jump at the end where several weeks pass in white space (at least three; enough time for one of Suyana’s wounds to heal and leave a prominent scar). This leap, after such a tight clock throughout the story, gives the impression of a rushed ending, and that’s not exactly the case.
The sequel, Icon, is due out next year. I certainly want a sequel, but Persona is a complete story with a satisfying conclusion, innovative prose, and great descriptions. Valentine successfully melds our sense of current politics as Kabuki Theater, the proliferation of Celebrities for Their Own Sakes, colonialism, reality television and even our fixation with selfies into a plausible and different world. In high relief against that intricate background, two characters we care about struggle to both survive and find their place. This, people, is storytelling. Persona is one of 2015’s best.