This is a volume that is dead set on subverting our expectations of science fiction, and succeeds at that goal brilliantly. Packaged together with the short story The Last Voyage Of The Smiling Henry, the title novel (I know that some might argue that its 133-page length renders it more of a novella, but I, for one, laud the return of the short, standalone novel) starts out as a fairly typical post-Great-War bildungsroman featuring the teenaged Shirley Fearn, who dreams of a meaningful life beyond her small English farming village. She is in love with her schoolmaster, Mister Tiller, a veteran of the fighting in France, whose body has been impossibly changed by a near-death battlefield experience. But he has plans for her that have nothing to do with his own physical desires, as he takes her into his confidence for a May Day celebration that he hopes will change the course of history.
And then? Things go amazingly crazy. It would be a disservice to tell you more, but I will say that when I finished The Arrival Of Missives, I desperately wanted a longer book, a 300+ page behemoth, a multi-part series of such behemoths out of this. I want to see where Shirley goes next, I want to see her fight and win. I was so impressed by how Aliya Whiteley takes this dreamy young girl, seemingly destined to play such a crucial role in the proceedings, and makes her even more important by virtue of her self-determination. It is an audacious coup of storytelling, and an excellent reminder of how each and every one of us is capable of breaking the shackles of expectations to claim our own ambitions and victories.
Subversive in a different, less subtle way is TLVotSH. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it’s essentially an adventure story very much akin to the popular fiction of the turn of the 20th century, only with the genders reversed. I grew up reading a lot of that type of fiction, and younger me never really grokked the casual sexism on display, filing it away in my brain as “this book could really use more interesting women” instead of truly seeing how damaging (and pervasive!) this worldview could be. I’m not sure if Ms Whiteley wrote this story as an antidote, as satire or as counterpoint to those predecessors, but reading it really hit home how little earlier authors thought of our entire sex. Ms Whiteley’s ability to put an entire subgenre of literature into perspective while still entertaining with a quality sci-fi read is astonishing, if not outright genius.
Anyway, I really loved this volume, not only for the wildly entertaining plots but also for the penetrating insight into the importance of female characters wresting their own agency in the face of all odds. More please, Ms Whiteley. With that in mind, stay tuned for an interview with the author herself, and check out the other stops on her blog tour!