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The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

Book of the Month for May 2017

Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yuknavich. Photo by Andrew Kovalev Via Los Angeles Times

Book of the Month for May 2017

The Book of Joan
by Lidia Yuknavitch
Harper (2017)

The number of operatic, action-packed, gore-filled sci-fi epics that make the reader ask “Is gender over? Is gender necessary? Is gender ours for the taking?” used to number zero. No longer.

Indeed, the audacious scope of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan goes further than you may dare to dream. The novel alludes to violent religious battles, Shakespeare’s most misunderstood characters, eco-terrorism, and a heated fifteenth-century tête–à–tête between rival writers, all in the context of a futuristic, dystopian war between egalitarian denizens of a floating space station who burn stories into their skin and Earth-bound revolutionaries who control the power to both destroy, and create the world. Far from a retelling of the Joan of Arc mythos, this is reworked epic with battery acid in its veins. It’s a tale as old as time but spoken over a flaming car while onlookers drink nitroglycerin.

It’s a tale as old as time but spoken over a flaming car while onlookers drink nitroglycerin

Such a conflagration of ideas would be ripe for failure under the pen strokes of lesser authors. But, Yuknavitch treads the water with ease and aplomb. Yuknavitch boasts a command of genre in her first foray into hard sci-fi that would make Octavia Butler jealous. However, to fans of Yuknavitch, the searing boldness of her writing will come as no surprise. Yuknavitch refuses to shy away from explicit sexual encounters, heart-wrenching violence, and the toughest philosophical questions imaginable, as made clear by her excellent work The Small Backs of Children. However, in The Book of Joan, this penchant for the grotesque is colored neon, illuminated by a fully-formed and wholly original vision of a dystopian society literally hurtling toward oblivion.

In many ways, The Book of Joan can best be described as cinematic, like a live-action Akira. Yuknavitch refuses to turn the camera away, both literally and metaphorically. Characters faces are shoved into the viscera of old friends, while simultaneously other characters must consider the utility of femininity, of rebirth, of love and life. Which isn’t to say that Yuknavitch sticks every landing in this dizzying display. But every attempt is dazzling to behold.

Yuknavitch is unapologetically feminist, crafting a society of heroes around the sacrifices of women returning to mother earth. Far from ham-fisted, the metaphor is subdued. Far from cloying, the characters’ struggles with gender and identity seem real, immediate, and haunting. And yet, Yuknavitch refuses to be tied down with how she depicts these conflicts, whether they be in painfully seared skin grafts, on smoke-filled battlefields, or between luminescent, all-powerful beings. In marching to her own war drums, Yuknavitch isn’t attempting to sit at the table of the male-dominated sci-fi landscape. Yuknavitch sits at a table all on her own.

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John Bradley

John Bradley is a federal prosecutor, former writing instructor, avid book lover, vinyl collector, green tea connoisseur, and The Wild Detectives regular living in Oak Cliff. Follow him on Twitter @_johnbradley.