Tanyana is an architect, and a pretty good one, if you’d ask her. Actually, Pride is indeed her nearly mortal sin. While her control of pions, the magical particles at the base of all of the technomagic of the city of Movac-under-Kepper is indeed strong and clever, it is not perfect. An incident in the construction of a great and mighty statue leaves Tanyana cut off from being able to see and access pions. Worse, from her perspective, her abilities have been replaced with the underclass ability to see and manipulate debris, the waste product, the garbage created by pion technology. This debris can be actively dangerous to society, and those capable of manipulating it are tasked with cleaning it up and keeping it from harming the city. And so, the proud and mighty architect has become something she never expected and never wanted–a lowly garbage collector.
Tanyana, though, is convinced her fall was no accident, and in fact was a deliberate action against her? But with her pion-abilities gone, how can she even effectively investigate the circumstances of her fall? And her new life as a debris collector, even as hard as it is to give up her own life, is a fraught experience with its own perils. In Australian Jo Anderton’s Debris, Tanyana must navigate the transition from her old life, learn her new, and try and untangle the mystery of her fall.
The novel and author’s strength, far and away, is characterization. Tanyana, for all that she could have been a cliche and one note heroine, is a complicated and complex character whose head we get to know very well indeed over the course of the novel. Her growth as a character is one of the joys of this novel, and its not a simple, straight line, but the messy tangle that most real people face in their lives. The rest of the cast are all fleshed out, sometimes in economy, a cast drawn in small moments and gestures that imply much and illuminate well. Tanyana’s entrance into her debris collection team is a painful journey for her, and there is real pain and pathos in seeing her adjust to a life of very diminished circumstances from what she was used to in her height as an accomplished architect.
The novel’s fearlessness in genre-bending should be praised as well. Science fantasy gets a bad rap in some circles, but the author embraces this fusion of genres with a fearless verve. Although the amount of detail we get about some things varies, sometimes wildly. I like how the Pion/Debris technology feels and acts both like 19th century science and magic-by-will, all at once, and set cheek-by-jowl. The vaguely Russian feel to the names of characters and institutions in the city also add to its exotic, unique flavor.
This first novel from the author, though, has some significant worldbuilding and plotting weaknesses that detracts significantly from my enjoyment and recommendation of the book. The worldbuilding is uneven at best, being maddeningly vague on some subjects and aspects of the setting that really could have been used some fleshing out. Movac-under-Keeper feels somewhat incomplete in some parts, and overbuilt in others, as a result, leaving me as a reader/listener sometimes as if the city were a movie set rather than a fully three dimensional, breathing city and setting.
The plotting of the novel, too, makes some missteps. While the through line of Tanyana’s story, and its focus on her fall and rise is a good one, there are a couple of inelegant choices and scenes along the way that could have used a second look. And I am not entirely certain about the ending. Looking back on the book after the fact, the conclusion feels like it was written to, and its ungainly and forced at best. I think I understand what the author was going for, but the scaffolding to get there doesn’t stand up that well.
It’s not a perfect novel, but the intriguing heroine and secondary characters Anderton has created here makes up for much of the rough spots in the worldbuilding and plotting. It entertains, and very effectively at that, especially in the audiobook edition I listened to.