Debris is the debut novel of Australian author Jo Anderton and the first in a projected trilogy, The Veiled Worlds, to be published by Angry Robot Books. Despite some minor flaws, Debris is quite a solid first novel and showcases Anderton’s substantial storytelling talent, marking her as a name to watch in the future.
What goes up must come down
Debris takes place in Movoc, a remarkable technologically advanced city that sits in the shadow of a symbolic mountain known as the Keeper. Since the revolutionary discovery that most individuals possess the ability to manipulate the small building blocks of matter known as pions through certain geometric configurations and ritual gestures, Movoc-under-Keeper has led the world in everything from architecture to art and medicine. However, while it may seem like a utopia for those who possess significant pion-binding ability, beneath society’s surface lies corruption and oppression. An underclass of ‘collectors’ are forced to collect the bi-product of pion-manipulation, known as debris, and are shunned by the rest of society.
Like many recent debut novels, Debris is told from a single first-person viewpoint, that of the protagonist Tanyana. When we are first introduced to Tanyana, she is one of the city’s elite, a prodigal pion binder and master architect, working on her most ambitious project yet. However, she soon falls victim to a suspicious accident. Her masterpiece is destroyed, she is left scarred, and her connection to the world of pions is severed. Bound into a bizarre ‘collecting suit’, Tanyana must learn to adapt to life at the lowest rung of society, all the while attempting to discover the truth about her fall. However, there is more to the world of pions and debris than meets the eye. Beneath the surface of society brews something far greater and more dangerous than she ever imagined.
A perfect set-up for some truly epic conflicts
Have you ever read a novel where you had a few gripes with certain characters but were never once tempted to put the book down? How about a novel where at certain points you were not 100% sure what you were reading or what the author was trying to achieve, yet despite it all you were intrigued and still kept coming back for more? This pretty much summarizes my experience with Debris.
A dystopian world of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and the tale of an individual’s fall from the highest rungs of society are not exactly new to the fantasy genre, yet Anderton manages to put her own spin on these familiar tropes and make them feel fresh. The world itself is unique, containing a number of intriguing aspects. For instance, the opposing forces of debris and pions make for a compelling and complex magic system. The collecting suit and its relationship with its wearer is also quite a fascinating concept that has many potential uses throughout the series. In addition, the government organization, the veche, provides a satisfyingly foreboding presence and its agents, referred to as ‘the puppet men’, are undeniably creepy and sinister. Furthermore, I thought that the reliance of Movoc’s upper classes on pions and the division between ‘binders’ and ‘collectors’ were believable byproducts of a society wherein most individuals possess some degree of pion manipulating power. In some ways this may even be interpreted as social commentary on Western civilization’s own growing reliance on technology. Anderton also does a good job of depicting the culture shock suffered by someone used to having everything come easily, suddenly losing it all and being forced to work to fulfill even the most basic needs. Altogether, this provides an excellent stage for a number of conflicts to play out and for various questions to be explored throughout the story.
Imperfect characters you will grow to love
On the whole, the characters are quite well developed and believable. Initially I had some reservations about Tanyana, as I found her a little cold and self satisfied and disliked her haughty demeanor. Nevertheless, as the novel progressed she retained her distinctive ‘spark’ but adapted to circumstances and grew as a person, becoming much easier to relate to as a result. Due to the first person narrative we don’t get as much insight into some of the secondary characters as we could. Nevertheless, many are quite well developed and leave you wanting to learn more about them. For instance, I loved the warmth in the relationship between the group leader Kichlan and his ‘broken’ brother Lad. In addition, their landlord, Eugeny, also stood out as a complex and three-dimensional individual.
On the other hand, there was one character whose behavior just seemed odd throughout the entire novel and who wasn’t believable to me as a person. Without spoiling the novel for others, there turned out to be a legitimate reason for this strange characterization; however, the way it was executed was not particularly subtle. Usually I would consider this a major flaw as it failed to utilize what could, with a slightly lighter touch, have been a shocking surprise. Initially, it also seemed unrealistic to me that a protagonist who had previously been shown as competent and intelligent would fail to have seen this development coming. However, after contemplating why this didn’t bother me as much as I thought it should, I had a realization—this novel is not really about the unexpected reveal; it’s about the characters and their reactions to each other and the events around them. When I looked at the situation considering the fact that Tanyana had recently lost almost everything that made her who she once was, it seemed fitting that she would ignore seemingly obvious cues in a final desperate attempt to hold onto one last connection to her former life.
Building up to something even more climactic
As Debris is the first novel in a trilogy, its main purpose is to introduce the world and characters and set up events that will culminate in later books. Anderton definitely achieves this and the necessary worldbuilding and characterization is quite fascinating, despite the fact it results in a slightly slower pace. Furthermore, the action really picks up at the end of the novel and there are a number of plot twists that I didn’t see coming. The events that occur in the last quarter, as well as the connection I felt to the characters by this point, made me quite eager to find out what happens next.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll mention that there is some violence in this novel, though it’s pretty mild by modern standards. Additionally, Anderton shows that she sure knows how to write a sex scene, although I’m sure it’s nothing most adult readers can’t deal with!
Why should you read this book?
Those who take pleasure in checking out new talent on the fantasy scene will have a hard time finding fault with this year’s debuts, and Debris is yet another impressive and promising title to add to the list. Personally, I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the series and can’t wait to see where Anderton goes with her characters and world. I have a feeling that the next book, Suited, will be even more impressive.
Although Anderton makes what could be considered some strange choices throughout the novel, overall Debris worked for me and managed to immerse me in its world. I would definitely recommend it as a book that will appeal to readers who prefer their fantasy complete with a unique magic system, strange technologies, believable characterization and a dystopian edge.
Michelle received a free review copy of Debris courtesy of Angry Robot Books