What exactly is atmosphere in fiction? For me, it’s the specific headspace a story creates as I read and process it. Reading The Book of Joan, that headspace became an ocean of calm reflection, concealing currents of boiling anger just below its surface. I think of it as the literary equivalent of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, an album I like to describe as anxiously calm.
In the future, our Earth is ravaged—torn apart through warfare and ecological collapse. The most affluent of the most affluent followed their cult leader to the orbital sanctuary CIEL where they have remained ever since. The remnants of humanity have mutated into hairless, pale white, near androgynous simulacra of their former selves. No longer able to function sexually, they have mythologized their past sexuality. Grafting, their predominant art form, involves branding stories in intricate patterns into grafted flesh with specialized instruments—using their own bodies as canvases for self-expression.
A part historical/part mythological story within a story unravels through a clever nesting mechanism as our main character starts her newest self-graft. She sears the narrative of Joan of Dirt—revolutionary to some, bio-terrorist to others—into her skin. Earth’s song entered Joan as a girl and gave her a quest: act as nature’s violent emissary, bringing about dirt’s will: destruction and renewal. The Joan of Arc analogies abound in this retelling, as she passionately rages forward. Back on CIEL, our protagonist leads a new revolution with her band of misfits, carrying Joan’s song within her and Joan’s story in her skin.
“Two things have always ruptured up and through hegemony: art and bodies. That is how art has preserved its toehold in our universe. Where there was poverty, there was also a painting someone stared at until it filled them with grateful tears. Where there was genocide, there was a song that refused to quiet. Where a planet was forsaken, there was someone telling a story with their last breath, and someone else carrying it like DNA, or star junk.”
This story is uncomfortable in the best way, meaning it contains a lot of hard experience and truth, but the poetic beauty of its language insists on being read. It unfolds, persists, and you need to know where it’s going, because it feels like it could go almost anywhere. It’s a page-turner of the rarest variety: one that is propelled forward not just through story, but by thematic intricacy as well. A book you will want to read again and again because it disturbs as it harmonizes dissonantly with something inside.
At the risk of making a sweeping statement: for whatever reason, I’ve found that disturbing or unnerving books are often much more impactful for me when they are written by women. Women seem to have a unique ability to tell stories that affect me deeply. Dangerous stories, or more often than not, just a perspective that I haven’t been exposed to. It’s easy to see new or different as dangerous. I think this might come from the vast majority of Western literary canon being written by men, so whole gamuts of possible theme and experience are absent from the ideas we internalize (see Joanna Russ’ excellent How To Suppress Women’s Writing for a terrific history of the censorship of women’s writing). Speaking from my own experience, when I read a story written by a woman, there’s a much higher likelihood it will knock me on my ass and give me a lot of new things to think about.
The more I venture outward, the more I want to read books written by those unlike myself—more books by women, more translated works, more writing by people of color, more genres I don’t usually expose myself too, etc. There is just so much possible growth precipitated through experiencing art created by those different from ourselves. The more removed we are from a perspective the more potential that perspective has to influence us. One of my favorite aspects of this, is how new ideas can upset our own; sometimes my ideas are bad and need a good upsetting. So, bring it on, I want to be exposed to wild new ways of thinking! I think that’s a terribly exciting place to be.
The Book of Joan is heavily interested in false opposition and symbiotic nature present in divisions and dualism: nature and humanity, love and hate, creation and destruction. It’s more interested in theme, subtext, and character than narrative cohesion. It’s not quite an environmental cautionary tale, but one could interpret it along those lines. I’d say it’s more a call to exist corporeally, to exist in and love one’s own self—or, to borrow a phrase from Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto: to use one’s own body as a “site of rebellion.” The Book of Joan is a celebration of the power of art, and particularly the role that stories play in who we allow ourselves and others to be.
“Joan knew one thing we never learned: to end war meant to end its maker, to marry creation and destruction rather than hold them in false opposition.”
This book is awesome, and absolutely brimming with possible interpretation. It reads like it was born fully-formed, and fought through a sea of monomyth for its right to exist. It feels alive through sheer force of will. It contains special treats for anyone intimate with Joan of Arc’s story or the thirteenth century French writer Jean de Meun. I highly recommend it for any fan of speculative fiction, but especially those who enjoy disturbing or macabre stories, or those familiar with Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, or Kameron Hurley’s work, particularly The Stars are Legion.