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The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

BOTTOM LINE: So very weird and disjointed.

Genre: Dystopian; Science Fiction
Publication Date: 18 April 2017
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“The bestselling author of The Small Backs of Children offers a vision of our near-extinction and a heroine—a reimagined Joan of Arc—poised to save a world ravaged by war, violence, and greed, and forever change history, in this provocative new novel.

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—galvanized by the heroic song of Joan, a child-warrior who possesses a mysterious force that lives within her and communes with the earth. When de Men and his armies turn Joan into a martyr, the consequences are astonishing. And no one—not the rebels, Jean de Men, or even Joan herself—can foresee the way her story and unique gift will forge the destiny of an entire world for generations.

A riveting tale of destruction and love found in the direst of places—even at the extreme end of post-human experience—Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan 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.”

My Thoughts: My first thought upon finishing The Book of Joan was the question of what I just read. My second thought was that this was one of those books where I probably should have DNF’d it. I continue to read stories in the perpetual hope that they will improve or that an ending will buoy the entire novel. In this case, I hoped the ending would coalesce the disparate stories into one cohesive unit and improve my understanding; spoiler alert – it did not.

There is so much promise within The Book of Joan which makes the less-than-coherent story that much more disappointing. The basic essence of the novel is a cautionary tale devised for today’s political climate. In fact, the rise of Jean de Men is disturbing in its familiarity of a TV “star” who gets involved in politics and eventually becomes a political leader:

We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.

Our existence makes my eyes hurt.

People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen. If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life. And then, in the blink of an eye, in a moment of danger, a figure who takes power from our weak desires and failures emerges like a rib from sand. Jean de Men. Some strange combination of a military dictator and a spiritual charlatan. A war-hungry mountebank. How stupidly we believe in our petty evolutions. Yet another case of something shiny that entertained us and then devoured us. We consume and become exactly what we create.

Then there is the rising tension among world superpowers and the subsequent wars that help to destroy the world. It is eerily prescient to the increasing animosity between North Korea and the Trump regime administration. Similarly, the use of child soldiers in the wars draws on Taliban and ISIS terrorists using women and children for their suicide bombs. Finally, there is the lack of environmental awareness. While in Jean de Men’s case, it is a direct result of the wars, one cannot help but think of the undoing of the EPA that is occurring right now even while scientists around the globe continue to show the effects global warming has on our ecosystem.

That basis should make The Book of Joan a modern-day horror story. One of the areas where the story falls apart though is in fleshing out the different elements of the fight. In particular, the rebels remain an enigmatic group. It is not until more than halfway through the novel where readers understand that they are an actual group. Because we only see this aspect from Christine’s point of view, it is too easy to mistaken her desire for revenge as personal and not political, and the fact that she dwells on her friend’s(?) torture continues to confirm the idea that she is acting out of personal feelings rather than for the betterment of others. The group of people she uses in the plot appear almost overnight and, aside from one person, remain anonymous and completely without motivation. Joan’s story has more depth to it, but even her story remains clouded by confusion.

The main weakness of the story is that certain sections are too slow and plodding, contributing very little to the overarching plot, but key plot development scenes are rushed and provide little explanation. Christine’s scenes, with their focus on burning and lack of sex, are particularly slow and unwieldy. Joan’s history is interesting and help readers understand the girl warrior in the aftermath of the wars, but her actions once she runs into the rebels are a blur. That essential connection is missing, and the story jumps between past and present and from rebel to warrior without much to tie them together.

In The Book of Joan, there is none of the elegance of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece, with its careful world-building and sympathetic heroine. The story, which should read like a cautionary tale, reads more like an action-adventure story that just happens to take place in the near future. There are certain gaps in the plot which are puzzling and only add to the general confusion caused by the lack of connection between the characters. The Book of Joan is a novel that should be better than it is.

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