Catherynne Valente tackles a hefty raft of ideas in Radiance: The novel is self-described as a decopunk pulp science fiction alt-history space-opera mystery set in Hollywood.
With that as the introduction, I was rather prepared to tire of Radiance pretty quickly, yet there was no doubt that there was some attraction. And somewhat surprisingly, the weariness never did arrive, except in small doses toward the end. What Valente has done here is use language to beautifully transcend time and place while hinting that there is something, shall we say, more metaphysical (?) that grounds us or sets us free.
The mysterious death of docu-filmmaker Severin Unck is the central point of the story, told from varying points of view and with jumps in chronology and location. The world of Severin is not Earth; in fact, here the entire solar system as we know it is actually fully populated by humans. (Homo-sapiens as the ultimate colonizer is a rather attractive hook, one that I did not fully grasp when I read the eye-popping introduction.) Severin had set off to Venus to make a documentary about the disappearance of a diving colony on that planet, but although some of her crew perished, she herself disappeared and is presumed dead. Her father, legendary director Percival, is trying to cope with her loss by crafting a film that aims at constructing an 'ending' for his truth-obsessed daughter.
The narrative structure is meant to mimic that of physical film, i.e., shot, chopped up, spliced, etc. So Radiance is definitely not for the sort of reader who is annoyed at multiple and frequent shifts in time; in fact, had it not been for the chronology at the beginning, I would have myself abandoned this venture. Differing points of view result in audio and film recordings, personal recollections, screenplay, gossip columns, and so on. The world of film-making, silent films at that, is a sort of shadow world in itself here transcending the actual locations, hinting at the question: What stories would we tell if we were to roam free through all the universe?
Towards the end there were some episodes that I found maddeningly over-stylized: as 'commercials' or then suddenly, a 'children's story' or then a completely mad mash-up of all characters put together in order to explain a critical plot point that in fact is not explained at all. The explanation comes at the very end, and here too there is a strong invitation to open interpretation. This was not a bad thing, in fact the ending was quite intriguing. It's just that at times it seemed like the author was having too much fun, got carried away in the dazzle of her own language, and ended up with a style that was simply too much on top of the heavily-layered and demanding narrative.
Still, Radiance does live up to its own rather ornate description. I would be willing to try more of this author in hopes that she tempers her inclinations to load the tale with stylistic curlicues. This is because at times Radiance felt like a cup of excellent coffee that some zealous barista has over-decorated with one of those foamy designs on the top. And then, added a too-generous sprinkle of cinnamon.