There's a lot in this book, inventive world building, a three-dimensional heroine with inherent conflicts and a multi-strand plot which includes class structure, bankruptcy, personal jeopardy, health care, ecological disaster, political unrest and a love triangle. Yes, that's a huge amount for one book to cope with and at times it seems almost too much, and not all the strands are resolved.
The setting is a human colony on Penance, a Dyson Sphere created by (now long-gone) aliens. Amandine is three things, a pacifist Seeker, a circus trapeze artist of extraordinary skill, and a leopard, a human born with a gene mutation that causes spot marks on her skin. Unfortunately it's a common belief that leopards are plague carriers (they aren't) so a zealous sect of Plaguellants is in the business of tracking them down and murdering them, apparently with the approval of the authorities.
Penance society is somewhat bent out of shape. Not only does it allow the indiscriminate persecution of leopards, it has a highly divisive class system whereby the haves, Titans, basically make all the rules to suit themselves. (Hmm, this is sounding familiar.) There's a twisted universal healthcare system which allows (ordinary) folk to insure only one organ, so woe betide if you have a kidney complaint when you chose to insure your liver. Additional healthcare is also available via casinos - you need win the jackpot if you or your loved one needs a medical procedure that you're not insured for. Lose and you're indentured for a number of years to work in any one of a number of menial tasks. Of course the system is stacked against you.
Amandine is a trapeze artists, but she is also part of the Seeker network. In her role as a Seeker she acts as a guide to take endangered leopards to a hidden sanctuary. As the book opens she makes a mess of her assignment. Leopards are killed and she comes to the attention of Brother Sterling, the chief Plaguellant. In the meantime Cristallo, the circus that has sheltered her for seventeen years, is on the verge of bankruptcy and her long term lesbian relationship with Malaga (who runs an Exotica shop) is breaking down. Out in wider society there's a backlash from the Spots, a radical bunch of leopard terrorists who are protesting the situation with indiscriminate violence.
The circus research is impeccable and the descriptions of Amandine's trapeze routines with her catcher, Jango, her heart-brother, are lovingly and viscerally realised in great detail.
Gender roles are open, relationships are bisexual with single or multiple partners. The romance angle is beautifully written, Amandine after breaking up with Malaga meets Nikos, and it's love at first sight. They are soul mates and a pair bond made in heaven. Their love is thrilling, sensual and utterly believable. The reader meets Nikos, a Titan and a healthcare reformer, early in the book without realising the importance of his character (to Amandine) I wish she'd met him earlier because we're halfway through before their relationship starts and I would have liked to see more of that.
The physical world is fascinating though some of the world building is detailed while other bits fade to grey in the distance. Dyson spheres are problematical for human colonisation, but we don't get detailed explanations of how this works technically, just hints about its size and the fact that only some of its atmosphere is human-friendly.
If this review is a little jumbled it's perhaps because there are many facets to address. It's a self-published book and, for me, seems to spread itself too widely, tries to do too much and because of that lacks a little focus. It comments on contemporary society's healthcare issues, radicalisation of the disaffected, the dangers of religious extremism, class structure, and the beneficent effects of art. Any one of those would make a book in itself. There's enough material here for a trilogy.
This book came highly recommended. Perhaps I was expecting too much because I didn't immediately engage with it as well as I had hoped. It took me almost to the halfway point to really get into it and then I found the ending was a bit of a let-down which either went on for too long after the main story arc had finished, or didn't go on for long enough, because though resolution is in sight, it is not achieved. The character that goes through the greatest change is Brother Sterling and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that. There are some loose plot threads (The snakehead fish? Malaga?) so I wonder if Ms Schultz is planning to revisit this world.
Downloaded from NetGalley in return for an honest review.