Book Review | Radiance

Title // Radiance
Author // Catherynne M. Valente
Publication Month // August 2016
Publisher // Little Brown Book Group
Genre // Science-Fiction


Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.

But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.

Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.


I’m not sure I have the words to adequately describe this book, or the intelligence to interpret it appropriately, I only have the feelings I had while I read it. I knew very little about the story or premise or writing style prior to beginning reading, and while it took me a moment to become immersed in the world that the author has created, I was hooked and couldn’t put the book down.

Radiance blew my mind with it’s beautiful use of language. While I was reading I was constantly stopping, rereading passages, adding tabs to refer back to later on and marvelling at Valente’s masterful storytelling. The story itself is set in space – humans have colonised the moon and the planets in the solar system, each of which have their own unique landscapes, fauna and animals. Amidst this we are trying to unravel the mysterious disappearance of Severin Unck, renowned documentarian and daughter of famous director, Percival Unck.

The story is told through transcripts, epistles, articles and traditional narrative and jumps around in the timeline (although everything is clearly labeled and dated so you don’t lose track). The story is subjective – the only person who knows the truth about Severin’s disappearance is Severin herself, and we only see her past. Valente has such an incredible knack for world building – her universe is incredible and yet I believed that it was real.

I love the reflections on how a film industry might dominate the lives of those born into it. There were cultural and mythological references galore, but some of my favourite references woven into the story were the ones that related to The Wizard of Oz.

It will take me a while to fully process Radiance but I look forward to it. It’s a truly remarkable book. I gave it five out of five stars.

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