Liz Williams: Banner of Souls

We read Williams’ novel Nine Layers of Sky for our book group a few months ago. I thought it was pretty good, but it hadn’t been my first choice for books by her to read. That was Banner of Souls, and I finally read it recently, and it’s quite a step up from Layers. It fits in with my high-tech, far-future space opera preferences.

In the distant future, human males are extinct, and women reproduce through the use of technology. (This isn’t an essential part of the book – or if it is, it went over my head – but rather a piece of the setting’s color.) Most of Earth is now under water, and is ruled by the Matriarchy from Mars. The third player in the solar system is Nightshade, a renegade colony at the system’s edge which has either been given or developed very high tech called “haunt tech” which allows certain forms of contact with the afterlife. Their tech has also created the Chain, allowing fast travel to certain points in the system, and they are able to create Kami, which are either souls or constructs which can inhabit a living (or dead) body and make it do Nightshade’s bidding.

Dreams-Of-War, a Martian warrior, is sent to Earth, charged with protecting the young girl Lunae, who was created by her Grandmothers to server a special purpose, and who is being nursemaided by Tersus Rhee, a kappa, one of the underclass on Earth. Lunae needs protection because on Nightshade another girl, Yskaterina Iye, has been created and bonded with a demon-like creature and charged with going to Earth to kill Lunae. None of these players knows why Lunae is special, but we learn that she holds the key to the survival of the human race, beyond these sunset years.

Banner of Souls is an unusual mash-up of SF adventure, horror, and dark fantasy, with high-tech armor, resurrected souls, and genetically-engineered monsters. The fantasy is glossed over with a science-fictional description, which works well enough. In its overall tone, the book feels like it’s just a step removed from Alastair Reynolds’ early work, such as Chasm City.

But Banner mainly an adventure story, with a little bit of mystery as to why Lunae is so important and what the big threat to humanity she’s supposed to stop is. Most of the story involves her and her guardians staying one step ahead of Yskaterina, who’s pursuing her own agenda rather than acting as mere assassin. Yskaterina has resources the others can barely imagine, so at first they don’t know what they’re running from, and then they don’t know what they’re really up against.

The characters are entertaining but not the driving factor, either: Dreams-of-War is the most vivid character, a hard-nosed warrior whose mind has been slightly altered to feel protective of Lunae, but who is still cold and uncompromising. What makes her interesting is that she’s highly skilled, but also vulnerable for having too much reliance on her high-tech armor. To the extent that any of the characters have an arc, Dreams-of-War learns to rely on her own smarts and skills and gain a sense of worth through accomplishment rather than accolades, lessons for which she’s ultimately rewarded.

The other main characters are less compelling: Lunae is little more than a cipher, a fairly generic heroine for whom this would be a coming-of-age story except that there’s no real sense of the transition from childhood to adulthood, as she was fairly mature at the beginning, and seems hardly more mature at the end. Yskaterina starts off as an interesting anti-hero type, but becomes more villainous as the story goes on, and ultimately has her story cut short, for a perfectly good reason given where the plot goes (she’s not what she seems), but it still means her character arc doesn’t really work.

The story doesn’t have any deeper meanings behind it, but Williams’ writing pulls off the dark and melancholy atmosphere of the setting quite well. The pacing is on the slow side, but it mostly works in this setting as there are a lot of details in the background worth savoring. Readers who prefer more action-packed fiction might not enjoy it as much.

Banner of Souls falls short of being a great book: The ending is a little too abrupt, and the fates of the characters lacked emotional resonance, for me. But the world building is quite good, and Williams carries off her ideas convincingly. By contrast, Nine Layers of Sky had a more satisfying conclusion, but most of the book lacked the sense of wonder present here. Between the two books, it seems like Williams has all the pieces necessary for a great SF novel, and I wonder if she puts them together in one of her others.