Review of Neveryona or: The Tale of Signs and Cities by

Book cover for Neveryona or: The Tale of Signs and Cities

That classic cover, tho, with the weird … fishnet? bikini thing on Gorgik, and his awesome ponytail mullet. The 1980s were a wild time.

Neveryóna: The Tale of Signs and Cities is another visit to the fantasy time and place of Nevèryön. Whereas the previous book was a series of connected stories, this one follows a single protagonist, Pryn, a mountain girl from Ellanon as she makes her way to Kolhari and into the world. Although each chapter is indeed its own little vignette, as a whole they form a coherent narrative. Even so, Samuel R. Delany is up to his usual tricks, encouraging us to question even what we might consider a narrative to be.

Pryn’s adventure begins when she encounters Norema, who was a protagonist in the previous book. Already agitating for adventure, Pryn listens to Norema’s tales and advice, and it shapes and focuses her energy. She heads off to Kolhari and ends up spending time with Gorgik the Liberator as well as a wealthy investor and businessperson, Madame Keyne. These chapters have some fascinating conversations on economics and the politics of liberation. Gorgik is this complex character, portrayed as a liberator of slaves; Delany positions Keyne as a foil, pointing out through her that one can be a liberator of slaves but not yet a force for general equity within society. Pryn acts as a literal go-between, someone still young and removed enough from these forces that she hasn’t yet formed her own strong opinions on the matter.

It’s brilliant how Delany captures these diverse voices and patterns of thought. I mean, I would hope that we can all agree that slavery is bad. Yet it’s really easy for an author to create characters who are extremely black-and-white in their opinions. Delany gives us characters who have much more nuanced views, characters who might agree that slavery is bad and wrong but disagree with what should happen once slavery is eliminated—or characters who conceptualize slavery differently. There’s this dense, complex conversation running throughout this book, both in the discussions Pryn has with characters and in the lives we see them lead.

This latter part is the second brilliant thinga bout Neveryóna. Pryn takes us on this little mini-tour of Nevèryön. We get glimpses at how different parts of the country live, at how different villages cook and sleep and work, and how these lifestyles influence the ways in which people interact and develop their philosophies. This is a thin book, but Delany avoids creating either monocultures or cookie-cutter “planet of hats” type cultures. Neveryóna is this wonderful, dazzling tour of smaller microcultures dotted across the landscape.

Delany is one of my favourite authors because his work never fails to make me think, and even his most straightforward-seeming stories usually end up blowing my mind with the critical subtext they contain. On the surface, Neveryóna is a pulp fantasy story about a girl coming of age. But it won’t take long for any but the most casual of readers to notice that there is so much more going on here. Each chapter involves a slightly different adventure or encounter of Pryn’s. But the substance is much more involved. Delany tosses ethics and economics, politics and personal pleasure, questions of history and semiotics and moral philosophy at us … this slim book is so densely packed!

Finally, Delany always reminds me of Ursula K. Le Guin. They both have a very deliberate yet very subversive way of approaching serious topics through science fiction and fantasy—by subversive, I mean sometimes you don’t even see what they’re doing until it’s too late, and then they’re upon you, all up in your brain, educating the hell out of you. I have two massive anthologies of Le Guin’s short fiction awaiting my attention, but I’m kind of saving them for the summer. Amidst my sadness at her passing, it was nice to delve into some Delany and be reminded of how good it feels to have my mind stretched in these particular ways.

Engagement

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