By Gwyneth Jones

Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
At 10 years old Gwibiwr is found hiding in the White Rock caves, all that is left of her Rebel family, and captured by the warlord General Yu. The Lady Nef, General Yu's wife, gives the little girl - commonly known as Bibi - a choice, join the General's household and become one of his concubines or join the Lady's household as a servant and be safe from the advances of men. Bibi chooses to be a servant.

Thereafter Bibi works her way up through the hierarchy, avoiding the sexual advances of general Yu and eventually attending university until she starts working as a kind of charity worker amongst the lower classes of this very class-conscious society. She has friends, meets a man and they fall in love and life looks to be pretty much on track for Bibi. Meanwhile Yu falls foul of a political scandal that threatens to wreck everything for the household but Lady Nef's position and influence as an 'Immortal' ensures they avoid real hardship. This incident is connected to Bibi and her friends discovering a hidden cache of Buonarotti coffins - part of the device that enables inter-stellar transport - which are illegal to use on Earth and this leads to the uncovering of a massive conspiracy.

Yu is chosen to lead a diplomatic mission to Sigurt's World and the household staff go with him, this includes Bibi, who must leave her new fiancé behind. From the get-go this turns out to be a bad move as they find themselves in the Kingdom of Myotis, peopled by a kind of insect race with barbarian customs who grow more antagonistic towards the mission every day until open warfare begins. Following a pitched battle where most of Bibi's friends are killed our heroine is saved only by dint of becoming the Myot Prince's wife. She gives birth to child by him and is kept imprisoned for 10 years, purely to provide fresh blood for the child she never gets to see. When it looks like she will finally be allowed to return home she is instead taken to a prison planet where after being subjected to a rape by one of the guards she is imprisoned in an underground cell where she will supposedly see out the rest of her days.

Following the rape she gives birth to a daughter and a 'blob', almost a kind of a symbiont, which gives her cause to live but during an escape attempt she stumbles upon another occupied cell containing none other than the Lady Nef who has been sold down the river by her husband, General Yu, in exchange for immunity from prosecution and advancement of his own position. Instead of escaping, Bibi and Nef live together in their cell until the Lady eventually passes away and Bibi escapes the cell and the planet but not without the death of her daughter in the process.

We then skip to the city of Speranza, and the introduction into high society of the supremely wealthy and independent Princess of Bois Dormant who seems intent on bringing down a whole layer of the existing hierarchy, politically and financially, as re-acquaints herself with the people from her past but who do not recognise her.

Nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award, Spirit is an epic tale and easily one of Gwyneth Jones' better novels. The problem is that it's too long and the 472 pages of story contain only 300 pages of plot at best. What seems on the surface to be a fairly straightforward re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo starts off with great promise, the world is interesting, the hierarchy and societal roles very much based on sex which makes the choice of heroine rather than hero a good one and the story, while sometimes a little confused, nevertheless draws you in. The problem is that on too many occasions the interest wanes as the story starts to meander off onto paths that reveal nothing of character and do not move the story forward. This makes the pacing very uneven and while it's all very nicely written I found myself reaching the bottom of a page only to have no clue what I'd just read but very intent on what I was going to have for tea - never a good sign.

And the more you read the worse it seems to get. In sticking closely to the structure of Dumas' template it's easy for the reader to imagine that revenge is on it's way, but even when Bibi emerges from the depths of despair to become the Princess of Bois Dormant she never really gets going and often, the targets of her revenge end up suffering by the hands of some strange coincidence rather than anything Bibi actually does, as if Jones is trying to maintain Bibi's integrity by letting a kind of 'cosmic karma' do her dirty work for her. The writing too begins to lack conviction towards the end, details are skimmed over and there are chunks of plot that feel tacked-on and straw-man characters that very obviously are there for no other reason than to serve specific plot points.

Spirit is a decent book, and while it wanes towards the end it's worth reading just to measure the quality of nominations for the 'Clarkes', especially if you're comparing your own efforts by this yardstick. I'm not sure it will win - then again I'm rarely right about these things - but it has an epic, old-school sci-fi feel and maybe that's enough for some readers.

Spirit is published by Gollancz and is available from Play.com, Blackwell, and all good book stores.

Gwyneth Jones has a website where you can download a PDF version Spirit FREE.

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