A copy of this book was very kindly provided me by the publisher. I can’t promise that this didn’t influence my feelings about it, but a book is a book is a book, however I acquire it, and I can promise that all opinions are my own.
Venus. A planet characterised by its thick cloud cover of sulfuric acid, and its dense carbon dioxide atmosphere. It is 2255 and Venus’ Québécois colonists have declared independence, at a high price. Indebted to the Bank of Pallas, these new Venusian citizens have a long way to go before they are out of the Bank’s clutches and struggle to make a life for themselves and their children in the clouds of this unwelcoming planet. They live in floating habitats – some entirely man-made, some bioengineered from Venus’ local plant life – drifting wherever the clouds take them. Resources are scarce and communally held, and everyone must contribute to the survival of la colonie.
So far, so fascinating (making a life on another planet? Always awesome reading!).
The D’Aquillon family are at odds with la colonie’s government after refusing to abort Jean-Eudes, who has Down Syndrome, twenty-seven years ago. The family lives in the deeper cloud layer, essentially off-grid, and patriarch George-Étienne continues to fume. His wife, one daughter and son-in-law are dead, and he lives and works with sons Jean-Eudes and Pascal and his ten-year-old grandson Alexis. In the upper cloud layer, his other daughter, Marthe, and his son Émile live in the second D’Aquillon family habitat, closer to government and to a marginally easier life. This family, these personalities, completely carried the story for me – I came to care for each of the family’s members as if they were people I knew IRL.
Two of them, in particular, go on emotional journeys that rather neatly mirror one another. I am writing without any spoilers here, so I will say only that Pascal and Émile may be concerned with very different things, but they are both trying to find a place in the world. Pascal’s journey may be internal and Émile’s more of an external one, but they are both instantly recognisable and sensitively, beautifully, told. I don’t think I can stress enough how invested I have become in these two character’s storylines. I need to know how things will turn out for the two of them. (And here’s where reading new new books really kicks you when you’re down, because I’ve got to wait now … and I’m terrible at that *sigh*).
But let’s talk more about the mechanics of life on Venus. I really enjoy the nuts-and-bolts details of early years life in space, before we learn how to zip across the galaxies, terraform other worlds and modify ourselves in every way we can. I like the puzzle-solving element, even when I don’t understand it. In The House of Styx Venus’ native organisms, large plants called trawlers, have been bioengineered into human habitats. With long trailing vine-like cables hanging beneath them, the trawlers catch lightning in Venus’ abundantly stormy weather. Their inhabitants use this harvest for electricity and for cracking oxygen (I don’t understand that bit, so I’ve probably worded it badly, but the gist is science-happens-and-Venusians-make-oxygen-hurrah. I promise I’ll go tackle my ignorance when I’m done here).
Survival suits are a must outside of the habitats and these suits must be neutralised upon re-entry, something that is done twice and methodically. Acid burns are still common among those who live in the lower cloud layers, something that sets them apart from the people of the upper reaches. Oh, and everybody flies. Sure, they have to strap on a wing-pack to do so, but I still got a massive kick out of this. No need for shuttles on Venus, just step out, strap in and jump off – heck yeah!
(Segue: I love the softly glimmering cover for my copy of The House of Styx, but if anyone has captured what I imagined while reading the book it’s artist Eldar Zakirov, who did this stunning cover piece for Analog magazine:
And if you like this, take a look at his website here. He’s done some cracking dinosaurs. Just saying).
If there’s one thing that dominates la colonie’s life on their adopted planet (other than the weather) it’s the constant negotiation for resources. Venus is metal poor and has yet to produce anything of value to put la colonie in a stronger position with the Bank of Pallas (which essentially owns all their asses and their children’s asses too). In theory, all goods are held in common – if a habitat is proving too costly to keep, it will be stripped down and its materials used to support other habitats – but there is a booming black market and some rationing decisions are … questionable. Medical care is rationed along with food and resources and in deciding that their Down Syndrome child should live, the D’Aquillon’s forfeited food and medical care for Jean-Eudes (and for George-Étienne in protest) because he is seen as an unproductive member of la colonie.
And finally, I’d be doing you a disservice if I failed to mention the MacGuffin. Because yes there’s awesome scientific detail and great characterisation, but none of that means much without a plot to turn upon. And down on the surface of Venus, almost impossible to reach, almost impossible to believe, is … something. Something that could change everything not only for the D’Aquillon family and their co-conspirators, but for Venus herself. And it’s pretty darn awesome!
But this is a spoiler free post, so you’ll just have to go read The House of Styx for yourself.
Heartily recommended. Definitely on the reread pile. And argh, how long until the next instalment??