Review of The House of Styx by Derek Künsken
The House of Styx
by Derek Künsken
Let me tell you how I thought this review would go. As I began reading The House of Styx (which I received free via NetGalley and publisher Solaris), I thought that I would enjoy this book, for sure. Derek Künsken had, after all, reignited the faint embers of my love for posthumanism with The Quantum Magician and then fanned those flames with a dose of time travel in The Quantum Garden. However, I also thought that the thesis of this review would be, “This is a fun SF book that I liked but did not love as much as The Quantum Evolution books.” I prejudged it based on its being a planetary romance rather than a space opera.
I am so, so wrong. The House of Styx surpassed my expectations in every conceivable way. Not only does Künsken deliver another excellent, diverse science-fiction future, but he does so with humour and grace—and he just drops a trans character in my lap like oops no big deal. More on that at length, I promise, in a bit.
Trigger warnings in this book for portrayal of gender dysphoria/gender incongruence, as well as scarification.
In the future, humans have colonized the upper atmosphere of Venus. More specifically, Québécois have colonized Venus—yes, Künsken, Canadian, reaches into his Québécois heritage for some cultural inspiration here, exposing a wider audience to the glorious, sacrilegious profanity of Québécois French. La colonie, in debt to a powerful bank, barely scraps by, and the D’Aquillon family is even worse off. That is, they make a discovery, in a cave on the inhospitable and nearly unreachable surface of Venus, that could change everything. It could certainly alter the fortunes of the family, not to mention all of la colonie—if this monumental discovery doesn’t fall into “the wrong hands.”
So the book quickly turns into a race of against time: how does the family recruit enough trustworthy allies to capitalize on this discovery before the executive powers that be complete their political de-clawing of Marthe, the family’s representative in l’Assemblée? It’s going to take a combination of political and social negotiation as well as good ol’ engineering know-how! Along the way, Künsken gives us these amazing scenes of what he conjectures life in the Venusian clouds could be.
From herding, modifying, and even bio-engineering the “trawlers” (gigantic Venusian life forms that live in the lower clouds) to flying with wing packs while wearing survival suits designed to resist the corrosive and toxic atmosphere, The House of Styx is replete and resplendent with a fantastic imagining of what life on (or at least, above) Venus might entail. I haven’t read much fiction concerning Venus; Künsken lampshades this in the book by reminding us that the major exploratory nations kind of wrote Venus off as a dead end after their few probes. So I love that Künsken looked at this planet and said, “No, there is so much more to talk about here,” and then turned that into reality. While this imagination was present in The Quantum Evolution books, it was spread across the numerous settings within those novels. Here, Künsken deploys it in a more concentrated way. There are exciting, cinematic scenes that would be incredible to reify on film if anyone ever wanted to adapt this series. After the success of The Expanse I could easily see this working as a TV show.
Beyond the poetical vistas and musing on the stark, brutalist beauty of Venus’ surface and atmosphere, The House of Styx also features excellent characters and relationships. First we have the interplay among the D’Aquillon family themselves. Künsken invests each character with such an interesting, three-dimensional personality, from the steady, dependable Marthe to the black sheep of Étienne. There’s the relentlessly warm Jean-Eudes, who has Down’s syndrome, and then of course, there is my personal favourite character, Pascale.
I was not expecting a trans character in this book, and I think that says something important about our expectations for trans representation in literature. There is this misconception sometimes, I think, that for books to feature trans characters then their coming out/transition/journey must be the main focus of the story. That’s all that’s important about us, right? So the fact that here it’s not the main plot, and that feels unusual, is so important. Künsken’s portrayal of Pascale’s journey—the questioning, the agonizing over the questioning and her dysmorphia, the acceptance she receives from the people in whom she has confided so far—is excellent. Yet it all happens as a subplot within a book that is, really, more about exploration and the power struggles within a small colony.
Other cis authors, pay attention: this is how you do it. Normalize trans people existing against the backdrop of your larger story. Pascale is far from the only character who grows and undergoes challenges in this book. Each of the main characters struggles with the responsibilities that the D’Aquillon discovery foists upon them, as well as their own flaws and fears. And of course, there is a truly heartbreaking event at the climax of the story that no doubt will set up some intra-family conflict in the sequels.
Indeed, the character dynamics in The House of Styx are just great. There are very few one-dimensional characters here—even the nominal antagonist, Présidente Gaschel, gets some page-time from her third-person limited perspective so that we can understand why she’s acting the way she does and avert the idea that she is a bumbling, maniacal villain. Meanwhile, the people who ally themselves with the D’Aquillons do so cautiously. There is no automatic, trite pledges of loyalty here. There is careful discussion of the economic and political ramifications of what they plan to do. There are also other power dynamics at work: sex and attraction, resource management in a resource-scarce environment, etc. Künsken carefully layers all of the rich ingredients that together form our spheres of human motivations.
So, in the end, what do we have here? The House of Styx is a science-fiction novel set on/above Venus but with the potential to open up into so much more in the sequels. It focuses on a core group of characters who are diverse in personalities, sexualities, gender identities, etc., including an excellent portrayal of a young trans woman. I do want to be clear: I’m not giving this book 5 stars just because there’s a trans character here (though that helps); even without such a character this novel is an excellent story in every respect. But Künsken’s attention to so many aspects of characterization truly elevates it. After the clunky, sexist read that was Foundation and Earth, this was such a refreshing contrast from the tunnel-vision of so-called “classic” science fiction. The House of Styx is exactly what I want from modern-day science fiction: it is imaginative, inclusive, and incredible.