Radiance | Catherynne M. Valente | Book Review

As Kernel Deb describes author Catherynne M. Valente she is a “darling of the critics” with abundant love for her self-described “mythpunk” style of writing. And is it just me or is Valente the spitting image of Abby from NCIS haha? just look at that author pic below, it looks like a toned-down Pauley Perrette who would embrace wholeheartedly the style of “mythpunk” and worship Valente’s writing. In this book, RADIANCE, we have a bizarre alternate futuristic past that is better described by Deb below. RADIANCE is out now from the folks at Hachette Australia, it is sold out from their site in paperback but you can still obtain it as an e-book HERE or find it in bookstores, maybe in the science fiction section. Enjoy Deb’s review……all the best….JK.


Radiance Book Cover image



In the past Thomas Edison held and actively policed his patents for colour film, sound and video recording. This fact, along with author Catherynne Valente’s own 2008 short story The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, are the kernels from which her peculiar new novel RADIANCE has evolved.

RADIANCE is set in 1944 in an alternate universe in which space travel is possible and the world powers including England, Russia, China, and France have colonised the various planets of the solar system. Severin Unck, a fictional documentary film maker has vanished on Venus while investigating the disappearance of a diving colony on the planet, leaving her film crew to return home without her. Her father Percival Unck attempts to understand the events surrounding her disappearance by creating his own film And If She’s Not Gone, She Lives There Still: The case of The Disappearing Documentarian.

Whilst there are four main narratives in RADIANCE, from Severin, Anchises, Mary and Erasmo, the book also includes poems, film scripts, radio shows, interview transcripts and film footage all of which are stitched together to given an account of Severin’s life. The effect is that the reader meanders around Severin’s life getting a sense of the inhabited solar system she lived in, her seven mothers, her film director father Percival Unck and lover Erasmo, as well as her intrepid Argonaut-like film crew.


Catherynne M. Valente author image
Catherynne M. Valente author image | Photo credit: Heather Miller


American based Valente is a darling of critics. She has won several awards dating from 2006 when her book THE ORPHAN’S TALES: IN THE NIGHT GARDEN won the James Tiptree Jr Award. In addition she is an active proponent of online artist crowdfunding so it was apt that her novel THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING was the first crowdfunded book to win a major literary award prior to publication.

Valente grew up in a house steeped in film and theatre theory. Her father was a film director and her mother a theatre director. Ultimately her father went into advertising and her mother became political science professor but at home, Valente and her siblings, starred in multiple home movies, the family watched a diverse range of movies, and film theory was absorbed as it was discussed. It is these elements that suffuse RADIANCE as Severin, like Valente, grows up on film, watches the films of her father Percival Unck, and makes films herself. After all “It didn’t happen if it didn’t happen on film.”

In RADIANCE Valente seems to be exploring the way in which the camera and film can collect secrets and hold images forever. Lies, fiction and film can be synonymous. She also seems to be playing with names and the way they can imbue meaning, reflect destiny or evolve with migration. Ironically Valente coined the term mythpunk as a joke to describe her own writing but the term has stuck, no doubt because she cannibalises names and stories from folklore and mythology, and transplants them into her alternate time lines.


Radiance Book Cover image


The most interesting parts of this book are the individual renderings of the planets and their communities. For example in the universe of RADIANCE the Moon is the home of the silver screen: literally a black and white silent studio powerhouse where the skin of actors and actresses gradually turn light blue due to colloidal silver. Pluto is home to nutritious lilies. Mars is full of lawless bars and Venus is home to the vast unclassifiable callowhales that swim in the Venusian seas. The callowhales milk and their body components are endlessly useful, essential for survival on the other planets of the universe.  Also inhabiting Valente’s alternate solar system are dragons, vampires, a boy with a monster hand and ruined cities.

RADIANCE is self-referential, surreal and hallucinogenic. The language is linguistically diverse and often beautiful. Sharp sarcastic turns of phrase are perfectly formed “Being on time is a filthy habit practised only by robots and retirees.” Various coy affectations in the film and radio scripts are telegraphed and epigrams abound.

RADIANCE is a book where the sum of the parts is less than the parts themselves, even though the components are clever, evocative, beautiful and sometimes all three.  Valente eschews a traditional linear narrative and cobbles together a complex and detailed account of Severin Unck’s life but, buried in her elements, is a simpler story of parentage, jealousy and murder. Valente has many fans but for me, RADIANCE was both pretentious and overblown. It is a psychedelic confection where style has dwarfed substance.


2 Pops


Deborah is a lifelong lover of books, food, TV and film with a penchant for schlock horror, superheroes, science , black comedy and Asian martial arts stars. She would prefer to skydive than couch surf and is a fan of zombie walks. She can be found plugged into podcasts on long walks with her dog.

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.