Tanyana is among the highest ranking in her far-future society – a skilled pionner, able to use a mixture of ritual and innate talent to manipulate the particles that hold all matter together. But an accident brings her life crashing down around her ears. She is cast down amongst the lowest of the low, little more than a garbage collector.
Who did this to her, and for what sinister purpose? Her quest to find out will take her to parts of the city she never knew existed, and open the door to a world she could never have imagined.
On the back of every Angry Robot book are categories the book can be filed under; in the case of Debris, these were: science fiction, Meets the Eye, Hidden Powers, Puppet Man Cabal and Fantastic Journey. Now all of these are quite applicable and some of them unique to this story – I don’t think I’ve ever run into a Puppet Man Cabal anywhere else – but it is the first one that is most debatable to me. While Debris contains SF-nal qualities, a far-future setting, the collector suits, the almost scientific application of pions, there is something to be said for this being a fantasy story, with a magic system, disembodied voices and honestly, a far more fantasy feel than a science fiction feel. I can certainly see why people would think Debris a fantasy novel. In other words, it’s the genre-bending kind of novel that Angry Robot is known for publishing. But I enjoy my genre being bent and with Debris, it got a good workout indeed.
From the start of the novel we are thrown into the deep end with binding, the intricate magic system that pervades the society of Movoc-Under-Keeper. The numerous uses the pions are put to, are fascinating and dangerous. Pions are literally the glue holding most of Movoc-Under-Keeper together and when they are loosed, things go very wrong. In fact, it reminded me a bit of our dependence on electricity. This past weekend there was a major power outage in a town called Nieuwegein, here in The Netherlands, which lasted for almost two days and it was kind of scary to see how disruptive this was to people’s lives, beyond the not being able to watch TV or use the computer. Complete malls had to stay closed and the police actually ran extra patrols to deter looting. The scenes that follow after some of the pions became disrupted and unstable, while far worse in effect, were quite similar.
One of the by-products of pion-working is debris and when too much debris accumulates it will disrupt nearby pion systems. This is where debris collectors come in; they are people who can’t see pions, but instead can see debris. The administrators of the city have them fitted with special, rather mysterious suits, which allow them to collect the debris and dispose of it, so it doesn’t cause problems in the city. I thought this was an interesting spin on a magic system, with a definite cost to magic use, similar to our use of fossil fuels and their output of green house gasses. What did surprise me, or rather it didn’t surprise me, as much as it didn’t seem logical, was the lack of regard the collectors are held in. It seemed to me that they provided an extremely important service, perhaps even more important than those the binders render. Then again, our society isn’t always as respectful of our garbage men and cleaners as we should be.
Even if I really connected to Debris‘ main character, Tanyana, I found her a bit confusing. Tan vacillates between outrage and action and acceptance and inaction. There has been a lot of discussion about character agency recently and Tanyana’s character arc definitely reminded me of said discussion. She moves from an independent, powerful architect to a lowly debris collector and seems to lose all grip on her life. At first, just after the accident that pre-curses her fall, it’s understandable; she’s groggy, in shock and not totally aware of what is going on, but later on she seems mired in acceptance. Every time she discovers a new clue to what actually happened with Grandeur, instead of following up on it, she slides back into the almost-contented ‘slices of life’, where she’s just out collecting or hanging out with Kichlan and Lad. Granted, she regains control toward the end of the book, but the switching between action and inaction on the Grandeur-arc actually made the pacing feel off at times. And the partial resolution to the mystery of Tanyana’s fall, while explaining some of Tan’s lack of agency, left as many, if not more, questions open to be answered in the next book.
The other characters I really liked were Kichlan and Lad. Kichlan is the right kind of surly and mysterious and for once I didn’t roll my eyes at the inevitable love triangle he formed with Tan and Devich. What makes him endearing is his devotion to and protectiveness of Lad; he is willing to risk anything to keep him safe and that touched a chord with me. It helped that Lad reminded me a lot of my toddler, who has bouts of the terrible two’s at the moment and who can switch from adorable to Godzilla in a split second, just like Lad, and who is as rough and clumsy in her affections at times as Lad is—the amount of accidental head butts or knees in the shins we get a day are painful. In fact, it almost made me wonder if Anderton didn’t have a toddler of her own to use as inspiration! The way Lad’s condition ties into the plot was marvellous and I loved that in the end Tan and Kichlan realise that his state of being isn’t something to be cured, but to be cherished.
Debris is a book that had problems and delights for me, but what remains after finishing it is both a sense of unfinished business and the enjoyment of a fun read. Make no mistake, Debris definitely doesn’t stand on its own in terms of answering all the questions it poses, but the journey through the set up of the questions and the gathering of the few answers we do get in this book, make for a pleasant enough ride that I look forward to starting Suited, the next book in the sequence, as soon as I finish my current read. Look for a review of Suited next week.