Book Reviews

Review: The Exile Waiting by Vonda N McIntyre

Vonda N McIntyre’s Dreamsnake was a book I read far too young, but it was a formative sci-fi read for me, so I was delighted to discover another book set in the same world, The Exile Waiting.

Book: The Exile Waiting by Vonda N McIntyre

Publication date: 22nd October 2019

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Handheld Press

Content warnings: Slavery and sex slavery; abusive family; drug abuse and addiction; violence, injury and death; ableism.

The time is the distant future. Earth has been rendered uninhabitable for much of the year by terrible storms during which its only city, Center, constructed around a natural cave system, is sealed from the outside.

Mischa, a young thief whose capabilities are enhanced by hereditary mutation, is trying to escape with her drug-addicted brother from the dominance of her uncle. So when a starship arrives commanded by the twin alien pseudosibs Subone and Subtwo, Mischa seizes her chance. She is soon assigned for training to Jan Hiraku, who quickly realises that Mischa has immense abilities. All goes well until Subone, in a moment of cruelty, lures Mischa’s brother into a fight and then kills him. Mischa attacks Subone and both she and Jan have to flee the wrath of the brothers and take refuge in the deep caves underneath the city.

It has been a few years since I last read Dreamsnake, but although The Exile Waiting is set in the same world, there’s actually almost no overlap in their specific setting, and this feels like quite a different kind of book. I didn’t think that the central story was quite as well-defined as in Dreamsnake; the viewpoint shifts between Mischa, Jan and Subtwo, and since each has a unique relationship to Center, it can be a little tricky to get a handle on the enormitude of the worldbuilding. I found I needed to relax into this book and let Mischa’s scenes in particular wash over me, as there’s a lot to take in but it’s not necessarily spelled out for you. By the second half of the book, things solidify into a more straightforward plot, and I found the pace picked up a lot, so persevere through the slightly chaotic opening – it’s worth it.

McIntyre’s depiction of a far-future, dying Earth is not a flattering one – the book delves into a society that is rotten in multiple senses. The juxtaposition of the decadent lifestyle of the rich and the grinding, brutal poverty of the lower classes only serves to heighten the grimness of this world – if you’re in the mood for light, fluffy sci-fi, maybe come back to this one later! The best sci-fi comments on social issues, but often metaphorically; in The Exile Waiting, these issues are baldly upfront, from the brutality of drug addiction, to the shocking treatment of disabled people and those who exhibit any imperfection. There is a message of hope, but it’s limited in a very realistic way, and couched among exquisite tragedy; no dramatic toppling of systems, but a sense of doing as much as you can, even if that’s not going to change much. It’s a book that will make you think for a long time after you close it.

This edition includes a short story, Cages, which explores the origins of Subone and Subtwo – I wish this had been placed before the main novel, because it explained a lot about what was going on with these two characters. Their relationship (and indeed, their existence) defines the novel and takes up a lot of the main plot, so the fact that I didn’t understand their backstory really hindered me in getting into the story. If I’d have had the chance to read Cages first, I would have known what ‘psuedosibs’ were and why tensions were so high between them, which I think would have made the beginning of the book much less opaque; I highly recommend skipping to this first and then going back to The Exile Waiting if you can. Also included is a very enjoyable afterword by Una McCormack, which I do think you should read last – it’s an interesting discussion of some of the themes, and provides a list of books for further reading.

This is a challenging read, but a rewarding one, and the worldbuilding information I’ve gleaned has offered me a new perspective on Dreamsnake. It’s definitely worth a read for fans of classic sci-fi and interesting takes on the future of humanity. Plus, this edition is lovely, as Handheld books always are. Four out of five cats!

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