In the near future, world wars have transformed the earth into a battleground. Fleeing the unending violence and the planet’s now-radioactive surface, humans have regrouped to a mysterious platform known as CIEL, hovering over their erstwhile home. The changed world has turned evolution on its head: the surviving humans have become sexless, hairless, pale-white creatures floating in isolation, inscribing stories upon their skin.
Out of the ranks of the endless wars rises Jean de Men, a charismatic and bloodthirsty cult leader who turns CIEL into a quasi-corporate police state. A group of rebels unite to dismantle his iron rule - galvanised by the heroic song of Joan, a child-warrior who possesses a mysterious force that lives within her.
A riveting tale of destruction and love found in the direst of places, Lidia Yuknavitch’s raises questions about what it means to be human, the fluidity of sex and gender, and the role of art as a means for survival. It’s a genre-defying masterpiece that may very well rewire your brain.
Where to start? Often I finish reading a book and I know exactly what I want to say about this, whether it's positive or negative. Sometimes a review already forms in my head while I'm reading. But there are some books where, after the last page, I just stare ahead, attempting to sort out my thoughts. The Book of Joan is one of those latter ones. So I'm going to try and answer some basic questions first. Yes, it is a Science-Fiction book. Yes, it is a Dystopian book. No, it isn't a straightforward book. Yes, there is a high chance you'll be puzzled by it at times. Yes, it will be a worthwhile experience reading it. Yes, this is a book about love. Confused yet? Good, now join me as I try and make sense of my thoughts.
The Book of Joan is set in the not too distant future where the Sun has given up and the world has been ravaged by geostorms and atomic warfare. Hovering above Earth is CIEL, a space platform in which Jean de Men has brought together some of the richest and most talented people to live under his rule. Radiation has significantly impacted the human bodies to the point where they're sexless and hardly recognisable. On Earth, struggling survivors fight a desolate climate and attacks from above. All of this is important and yet it is also very much background noise. At the heart of the novel are the stories of Joan, a child-warrior who fought Jean de Men for Earth's sake, and Christine de Pizan, floating in CIEL and inscribing stories upon her own and others' skin in the hope of retaining some humanity. With their stories Yuknavitch tries to explore what it is that makes us human, which drives define us above all, and where we have gone wrong.
The novel swims with themes and philosophies. The Book of Joan is a cry for environmentalism, full of the pain of a dying and decaying world, an ode to the beauty of nature that is slowly being destroyed. Although quite obvious, it never felt too on the nose for me. Similarly, The Book of Joan is an exploration of love, sex and bodies. At times the book may be too crude in this exploration for some readers, as Yuknavitch unblinkingly analyses human impulses and bodies. But there is a beauty in how unrelenting she is, the way in which she shows Christine using her own body to tell stories, to feel, to express herself, by inscribing them upon her own skin. It may not be for everyone, it's not necessarily for me, but it is fascinating and definitely made me think about my own body and how I express myself with it, through it. It made me think about how we judge others by how they carry themselves, how they claim an identity through their bodies
I give this novel...
The Book of Joan will not be for everyone. It is both bleak and horrifying, as well as beautiful and heartening. It is a book you will question, struggle with, but (hopefully) emerge from with a different outlook on things, a new appreciation for our Earth and our selves. I'd recommend this to readers interested in Speculative Fiction and Dystopian Fiction.