Taking The Count of Monte Cristo as her inspiration, in Spirit Gwyneth Jones writes a novel of betrayal and revenge. The novel follows the story of Gwibiwr, known as Bibi - daughter of one of the rebel chieftains of White Rocks - as she is offered the choice to either become a concubine or a servant within the household of Lady Nef. The first half of the novel deals with the political machinations and plotting of General Yu and Lady Nef, as they head on a delicate mission to Sigurt's World, and the 20-year imprisonment of Bibi; while the second half of the novel shows her path as she takes her revenge on those who caused her incarceration.
I confess that I have not read The Count of Monte Cristo, so I cannot comment on the faithfulness of Spirit to the source material - from comments I have read, it allegedly closely follows that tale of Edmond Dantes. The Count of Monte Cristo is known to be a story of blockbusting adventure and derring-do, but unfortunately I did not find Spirit to be the same.
There was elements of Spirit that I enjoyed. The worldbuilding was rich and imaginative, with aliens that were suitably bizarre and beyond human comprehension. I liked the ambiguity of sexuality and gender - especially given that in this version of The Count of Monte Cristo our protagonist is female, which enables the opportunity to highlight gender differences.
Gwyneth Jones manages to show a culture which has gone through many changes, thanks to the existence of alien species and the invention of the Buonarotti travel system. There is a dark underbelly, and a rich upper echelon of society, and both of these are given a strong identity.
With all that said, I found Spirit a challenge to read. The largest part of this came from the fact that I thought the prose was extremely dry. Some authors use a chatty style in their writing, in other cases prose is smooth as silk and very readable. Gwyneth Jones' writing reads rather more like a textbook, with complicated words to understand thanks to the alien cultures.
In addition to this, Jones does not stop to explain much of the complex situation or the many sci fi concepts she introduces. I was left very bewildered by what was actually occurring - especially because a major part of the plot (the fact that General Yu has backed the wrong horse and is trying to regain his political standing) takes place "off-screen", as it were.
A lot of the writing just confused me, in fact. I ended up feeling as though I was missing a great deal, and this never endears a book to me. This included passages such as:
" 'Oh yes, we knew what had happened, it was unmistakable...A group decided to become settlers. They said the Ground Station offered no protection: which is true, it's all ritual, and self-control. For a while they succeeded, in a strange way. Expeditions would suit-up and come out (I don't bother any more, I rely on magic), and find people they'd known, transformed into the descendants of the survivors of a crashed starship...' "
That passage should have been easy to understand; it should have been shorter with less redundant words - as it is, this is just one example of many where I had to read a paragraph two or even three times to make sure I was absorbing the detail I needed to.
On top of this, the characters were hard to love - perhaps because the prose was so dry. I felt as though I was receiving a report on their lives, as opposed to being able to really immerse myself in the danger and excitement of a failed mission and a revenge story. Bibi was a clever and strong heroine, but I didn't love her - and this means that the revenge portion of the novel would always fall a little flat, because I wasn't rooting for her to succeed.
In fact, the pacing of Spirit was also an issue. The build-up to the mission on Sigurt's World, the scene-setting, the section of the novel where Bibi finds herself imprisoned - all of this unfolded with a dreamlike, slow pace. In comparison, we whip through the section where Bibi exacts her revenge - and I'm never completely clear whether the comeuppance of those who caused her downfall is mere happenstance or through Bibi's actual actions.
There were a few characters that seemed entirely superfluous to the main meat of the plot - these were introduced quite late on and their adventures were very much a dead-end path when what I really wanted was to see how Bibi went about bringing down General Yu.
I had many issues with this book, and overall my enjoyment was limited. I was glad that I read through to the end and completed Bibi's story - I also liked Francois the Aleutian very much, but I struggled with Jones' style of writing and would probably hesitate in picking up a book of hers in the future.
Arthur Clarke thoughts: This is my second book of the six Arthur Clarke finalists, and it was a very different read from The City and The City. Leaving aside my enjoyment (or not) of the respective books, I can see why this book received its nomination: the worldbuilding and the sci fi elements of the novel are both weird and wonderful, and explore a future where Earth is just one of many cultures struggling to find harmony together. Where The City and The City studied nationalism and retaining the boundaries of a city state, Spirit looks to the stars and how our exploration of such can lead to petty squabbles and how warfare and politics will be massively scaled up. Hand on heart, though, I believe this one is an outsider for the win.