Illuminus, 338 pages
Review by Steve Ironside
Some books you regret picking up, some are just a joy to read, and some feel like a bit of a slog, but at the last page you can put it down and say, “that was worth it”. Carapace initially felt like it belonged in the first category, but as I continued to read, I came around to fitting it into the last. There’s a journey in this novel, and it’s worth sticking with it.
The book opens at what feels immediately like the end of part one of the story – painting a picture of a world where humanity has lost. The insectoid aliens (referred to as “ants”) have invaded, humanity has been reduced to a slave race on its own planet, and all hope has apparently gone.
The “luckier” humans have been claimed by specific Masters as bodyslaves, who are forced to drink sweetmead, which is then sucked back out of their stomachs, partially digested, for their Master’s pleasure. As horrible as this process sounds, being claimed at least protects a human from being summarily executed, or badly treated by other ants. Some Masters take further depraved and more intimate liberties with their slaves, and it is this kind of regular violation that Khara, the first of the characters whose point of view we see, is having to endure.
The book switches viewpoint from chapter to chapter, so we meet the other main characters – Nestra, who is the Shame Accepter for the ant queen (a detoxification process which helps to keep the queen mentally strong), and Samuel, who is a leader for the human Resistance movement while also playing the part of a claimed human. All are undergoing awakenings. As Khara has an epiphany that she can no longer accept what she has become, Nestra begins to see that the queen is insane and that madness is spreading like a sickness. For Samuel, too, there is a growing awareness that defeating the invaders may require more sacrifice than he is prepared for, and that not every rebel may be as they appear at first glance.
The story that DeSye weaves brings these three characters into each other’s orbits, set against the final stages of the mad queen’s master plan. Will these ordinary rebels succeed in subverting events, or will the queen win, with all that means for both humanity and ant-kind alike?
Initially, I had difficulty getting into the story – the opening chapters are quite short, and the vile, cruel behaviour displayed felt like quite an assault on my sensibilities. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to carry on reading if this was all that the book was going to provide. I shouldn’t have been concerned – once things settled in, I began to see the point of such a brutal opening.
The emotional flatness of the writing that I’d had such difficulty with had meant that I’d found it hard to empathise and engage with the characters. Then it dawned on me that in an environment where subjugation is the norm, that is what you’d expect. Samuel feels forced to maintain an emotional detachment in order that the work of the resistance is protected, and to ensure that his judgement is unimpaired by attachments. Khara spends much of her time living in a drug-fuelled daze to suppress her reactions to the horrors to which she is subjected daily, and has developed a phobia of being touched by anyone as a result. Nestra is prohibited from touching anyone but the queen, which is often a violent and degrading process, and one which isolates her from the otherwise extremely social nature of her species. The dreary way in which these callous and demeaning acts are described draws you in and has you treating them as normal. Once you are complicit, and acceptant of the way things are, DeSye changes gear, and lets you go through the same awakening as her characters – a neat trick indeed.
And it’s once the central characters start to open up to each other, that the emotional palette changes. For some, this is a literal thing. The ants communicate with each other through “sharing” – a mix of sound, colour, touch and taste – the halting development of trust and communication between Khara, Samuel and Nestra is neatly handled. The description of the extra sensory input when dealing with the ants allows ways of describing the intensity and context of the emotion as a kind of shorthand, like bringing the right music up behind the dialogue in a movie. As a result, the moments where these characters bond feel like they really mean something when compared to the other relationships that exist with the rest of the drone-filled populations, both human and ant. Aside from the emotional content of the book though, there’s satisfaction for the intellect too.
Like Brandon Sanderson’s excellent Mistborn series, this is a book that invites the reader to consider the nature of rebellion, without treating the protagonists as Heroes. What compels an ordinary citizen to act once they are awakened to the injustices that they see around themselves? While both Khara and Nestra do perform heroic acts at times, they aren’t heroes in the way that Luke Skywalker is, for example, and while Samuel is lauded for his leadership, he is constantly filled with doubts, but driven to keep doing what he feels is right, rather than being a Hero with a Destiny.
Given the political debates that currently predominate in the media describing disaffected and disenfranchised people being preyed upon by a political elite, led by a distant and volatile leader, there are definite parallels to be drawn if you feel the need to do so. I’m not sure that the book offers any “quick-fix” solutions, except to demonstrate that trying to effect change requires that individuals act; but it certainly got me thinking about it, which surely is a mark of good sci-fi.
With hints that DeSye has thought ahead to future work in the same universe, I’m intrigued (and to be honest, a little wary) as to where that could go. Certainly, Carapace stands well as a story in its own right, and on that basis, I’d recommend this as a worthwhile read for anyone who likes their sci-fi bleak and gritty, with bit of socio-political allegory to boot.