SPIRITS OF GLORY by Emily Devenport
Amazon Digital Services, 2011, 133 pages, B0055F5P46, Kindle Edition, $0.99
For the meager 153 pages that make up this story, Spirits of Glory manages to surprise more than you’d expect. For something so brief, Devenport manages not only to keep us guessing at every page, but she also does an incredible amount of world-building. Admittedly the book is a bit rough in the beginning, but as you continue it becomes apparent that Devenport has created an intricate and exceptionally well thought out narrative for this charming little sci-fi piece.
The story takes place on the foreign planet Jigsaw, where humans have settled into cohabitation with a humanoid race called the Neighbors. It’s a planet that’s divided into two halves, the North and the South, each half governed by its own set of gods. One morning, 200 years before the start of the story, everyone wakes up to discover that the entire population of the South has vanished into thin air, apparently taken by the Southern gods. This cataclysm was called The Disappearance.
Now it’s not humans who dwell in these Forbidden Cities, but the Spirits of Glory, the ghosts of dead Neighbors. Our story begins with Hawkeye, a sixteen-year old girl and a specialist on The Disappearance. She is approached by a group of Neighbors, who have been sent by the Northern gods to venture into the Forbidden Cities of the South and speak with the Spirits of Glory.
Clearly, Devenport has done a massive amount of world-building for the planet Jigsaw, but it’s because of this that the novel stumbles a bit in the beginning. This is a very short story. One hundred and thirty three pages is only about a third of most standard sci-fi/fantasy novels, and in order to include a rather large number of fantasy elements, Devenport has to do it quickly and relentlessly. What that leaves us with, however, is a lot of completely new, obscure, and seemingly bizarre elements with very little explanation as to what they are. In the first eight or nine pages alone we’re introduced to Neighbors, Assistant Animals, Jigsaw, Northern/Southern Gods, The Interstate, The Disappearance, etc. It’s a bit daunting, and it feels like Devenport is dumping exposition rather than subtly building a world for us. That said, after the first chapter we see these same concepts develop more and more rather than Devenport throwing more and more at us. They begin to flow more into the world we’re exploring with Hawkeye, and the setting begins to pull you in.
In regards to that setting, Jigsaw is actually a very interesting sci-fi world thanks to a cool concept Devenport utilizes called Time Fractures—loops of time-space where the present is elongated and stretched, where Now seems to expand on forever. At first they seem merely an intriguing world aspect, but we later discover that these Time Fractures are actually an integral part of the narrative. As for the rest of the world, Devenport does a great job of painting the image of the Forbidden Cities, from the consuming silence of the library at Lark to the way the architecture of Seaside mimics the waves of the ocean. You’ll begin to wish, however, that Devenport handled atmosphere as well as she does environmental description. Now and again she writes lines like, “the tension was palpable,” telling us rather than showing and ultimately detracting from the mood she tries to create. Still, she handles it well enough that this issue becomes a rare stand-out rather than a constant annoyance.
What Devenport does best is to create continuous intrigue, a feat that was no doubt difficult considering the lack of space for stringing out plot arcs. Throughout the story, Hawkeye is presented with clues about the purpose of her trip to the South, the origin of the Neighbors, the purpose of the Disappearance, and a vast number of other mysteries and puzzles that will spark curiosity. That curiosity is maintained and perpetuated by a really smart character aspect of the Neighbors—you can’t ask them questions. Neighbors are disturbed by questioning, often giving sparse amounts of information and occasionally refusing to answer at all. As Hawkeye tells us in the very first chapter, you can never ask a Neighbor “why?” To ask them that is to destroy your relationship with them, and since Hawkeye must journey together with them, we’re constantly bombarded with her questions and doubts.,More often than not, we’re left without answers. We, like Hawkeye, have to put the puzzle pieces together ourselves. Devenport engages us with the story, and it makes it incredibly fun to read.
Overall, Spirits of Glory is a fun, brief sci-fi novel. It’s a short read, but one that is filled with solid pacing, an intriguing narrative, and an interesting world to explore. For the very fair price of a dollar, it’s definitely worth the day it takes to read if you’re looking for a quick helping of good science fiction.
Thank you to Emily Devenport for providing a review copy.