Nine Layers of Sky

Liz Williams


I don’t know for a fact this was overlooked when it came out a decade ago but I remember that Bantam Spectra didn’t seem to be doing a stellar job of promoting their authors at the time and Williams move to Night Shade is at least suggestive.

What I actually set out to read what Williams’ Banner of Souls but whatever place I thought was an intuitively obvious place to file it wasn’t the W section of my paperback/trade/ARC F&SF library. I hope to stumble over Banner of Souls at some point but until then have a review of an entirely different book. As it turns out I have apparently been confusing by copy of this with my copy of Banner for over a decade and had never actually read it so this really worked out in my favour. Although I still want to reread Banner of Souls.

In the Soviet era, Elena Irinovna was a scientist in the Soviet space program; in the ruins of the Soviet Union she is lucky to find work as a cleaning woman and part time smuggler; her sister has found more lucrative but less socially acceptable employment that helps motivate Elena when she finds out about it. Although Elena lives in independent Kazakhstan, she sees herself as firmly Russian.

During a smuggling trip, Elena salvages a small item whose owner no longer has need for it, being dead. She has no idea what it is; among other things it is a hook connecting her very firmly to the plot and the machinations of the beings we call the Rusalka. It’s also a sort of key, one that can open the way to another universe.

The other world has its own human and demihuman populations and memories of the Soviet and earlier eras.It also has the curious property that it can be shaped by desire, although doing this effectively and deliberately is tricky. Since it can affect our world and vice versa, this is as much a drawback as a feature. Only someone or something very confident in their abilities would try to institute sweeping changes to the worlds; happily for the inhuman Rusalka, they have good reason to think they are justified in such self-confidence.

Elana knows none of this so she is subjected to a series of revelations as she discovers the secret history of the worlds, including such tidbits as the presence of gloomy immortals out of Russian folklore, before being tossed into center ring for the grand finale.

This is about as far as I could get from the Williams I wanted to read as I could get without switching to another authors. I am not sure if I was supposed to find Elena more sympathetic than I did; her attitude towards Kazakhstan would be familiar to any colon in 1965 or British administrator packing up his office in Calcutta in 1947 and I don’t have anything invested in the idea of Russia as the grand civilizing force in Asia 1, although I would imagine Russians do.

I cannot explain what the Rusalka goal is without it being a massive spoiler but I can say I have seen variations in other works of F&SF, generally presented a lot more positively than it is here. I am relieved to say this would be one of those works where giga-deaths are seen as a bad thing, rather than a sensible first step to give the protagonist room for his sword’s back-swing. On the other hand, it may be that Elena’s failure to gleefully embrace the chance to shovel billions of people into mass graves indicates that Williams is seriously out of step with the core values of heartland science fiction.

Not having ever been to the Soviet Union or Russia 2 I cannot speak to the accuracy of Williams’ depiction but it seems at least somewhat like the nostalgia for the Soviet era and its often convincing illusion of prosperity from people confronted by the reality of post-Soviet poverty. The Soviet Union had its flaws, he said understatedly, but at least people had health care and establishing Elena as Russian colon nostalgic for a lost golden age sets up an interesting dynamic between how she sees her circumstances and what the Rusalka are up to, which I assume is intentional.

This is a bit embarrassing: Overdrive lists an ebook edition but for the life of me I am not sure it is still in print and sending people to libraries hardly accomplishes my goal of getting more sales for the author.

  1. What about the former Six Nations land I am sitting on, you ask? Hey, aren’t those people over in Quebec terrible in how they treat their First Nations populations? Not to mention the Americans!

  2. (The transfer of land rights from the Iroquois to white settlers in Kitchener verged on the legal more often you may expect, especially if you know who Colonel Richard Beasley was)

  3. Although if things had worked out a little differently, we would have been in the middle of my father’s planned sabbatical in Novosibirsk when he died, which I imagine would have provided no end of hilarity.

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