Persona by Genevieve Valentine is an excellent novel. This probably will come as no surprise to those of you who have read the author’s two previous, critically acclaimed novels, Mechanique and The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, but as a newcomer to Valentine’s works I was quite blown away. (I should probably add that, based on feedback from friends and on those two books’ blurbs, Persona appears to be very different from her earlier work.)
Persona starts off in near future Paris, where Suyana Sapaki is about to cast a vote in the International Assembly (IA). Suyana is the “Face” representing her country in the IA, which means she has virtually zero decision-making power: she is a figurehead, a glorified spokesperson who says what she is told to say and votes the way she is told to vote.
In this version of international politics, it’s the handlers who make the decisions. The Faces are there to be seen by the public, have their outfits analyzed, climb the ranks on Intrigue magazine’s Most Eligible Faces list. An entire gossip and paparazzi industry has been built around them. Politics has, for all intents and purposes, turned into a scripted reality TV show: the Faces serve as the “on screen talent” while the handlers pull the strings.
It’s not unknown for a Face to strike up a temporary, contractually negotiated relationship with another Face, as Suyana is about to with her counterpart from the US. The reasons for this particular pairing are many, but love isn’t one of them. Regardless, before Suyana even gets the chance to have her first “secret” meeting with the US Face, she is shot.
Fleeing from the scene, she is helped by Daniel Park, a “snap” or paparazzo who was lurking in an alley hoping to get some shots of Suyana’s first date. This sets them on a path full of shocking twists and surprising revelations…
Persona is a novel with many strengths and virtually no weaknesses. Its story is told in deft, bold strokes, with very few wasted words. It’s amazing how much information Valentine manages to compress in just the first five or six pages, painting both the wasps’ nest of political interaction and Suyana’s sharp cynicism in just a few brief scenes.
It’s even more amazing that the true plot of the novel then immediately kicks into high gear: once Suyana’s shot and goes on the run, it’s basically non-stop action and tension until the very end. Still, along the way Genevieve Valentine manages to impart enough information about Suyana’s past (and Daniel’s) to add several more layers of complexity to the novel.
Another strength of the novel is its wonderful, biting prose, which is as incisive and cynical as anything by, say, William Gibson. Which reminds me of another novel I reviewed here recently, Evensong by John Love. Evensong was compared to both Gibson and Richard K. Morgan on its cover, but in my review I mentioned that it was much closer to Richard K. Morgan than William Gibson. Persona, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite, from the relatively lowly origins of its main characters to the pace of its narrative. (Forgive the long sidebar: I read these novels back to back, which was an interesting experience as they both deal with evolved near-future versions of the political world, but approach this topic in very different ways. For the record, of the two I think Persona is the better novel, as much as I loved Evensong.)
Anyway, Persona is really not a novel that needs such comparisons. It can stand firmly and proudly on its own as a perfectly executed piece of near-future science fiction. This is just one of the first few releases of Simon & Schuster’s new Saga Press imprint, and based on this first taste (and the fact that Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings is coming down the line just a few weeks from now) I think we can safely say that this will be a publisher to watch closely.
Regardless, if you’re in the mood for a dark, intelligent near-future SF novel that explores the intersection of the political and the personal, don’t hesitate and pick Persona up right now. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one on the ballots of some of the major awards next year. Highly recommended.