December 28, 2015 • Cee • Reviews


Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente • October 20, 2015 • Tor Books
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Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood—and solar system—very different from our own, from the phenomenal talent behind the New York Times bestselling The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.

But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.

Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.


I received this book for free from Tor Books for review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

First sentence: “Come forward.”

How do I even begin to describe to you the beauty of Radiance? This book left me incapable of articulating words that could perfectly convey to you its imaginative space world, different narrative forms, the old-timey radio quality, and the mystery of Severin Unck that troubles the book. I don’t think anything I could say would do this book a justice, but I will try because wow, this book, guys. Absolute book hangover.

Spanning from the 1920s to the late 60s, Radiance imagines an alternate universe where people live on the Moon and the film industry has barely made any progress due to Edison’s strict business practices that keeps motion picture technology from people. You’ll find: an epic space noir mystery about a headstrong documentary filmmaker, Severin Unck, who had disappeared after visiting Venus with her film crew to investigate the disappearance of a diving colony and the mysterious alien-like callowhales; old glamour Hollywood; layers and layers of characters performing and crafting stories, trying to make sense of the terrible; an alternate solar system where it’s like a playground for Severin to film and discover; different narrative techniques like gossip rags and movie scripts; a deep appreciation for storytelling and filmmaking; and so much more.

Why Radiance Is The Best Book You’ll Ever Read In Your Life

  • You’re invited on a trip throughout Space.

You get a front row seat to this adventure—this journey through space via films and transcripts to figure out what the hell happened to Severin Unck.

You will visit the Moon where the characters in Radiance call home; the dusty red plains of Sino-Russian Mars that’s almost like the Wild West; the decadent Pluto that had been described to be the “mad wife in the attic of the solar system” that’s “nothing more than the haunted mansion on the hill”; and the water world of Venus where the majestic alien-like creatures called callowhales swim in the oceans and where it’s the last place in the world that anybody saw Severin. Each explored places send you on a different course in Severin’s life—both in past and present day.

  • Radiance is a mixed media of different narrative forms that give it a radio-documentary feel.

Radiance doesn’t follow the typical straight-forward narratives nor does it follow just one genre. You find the narrative being told through gossip magazines, movie scripts, interview transcripts, diary entries, and so on. These different narrative mediums change the atmosphere of the story being told, making the genre in each different. You can get a simple who-done-it detective story in the scenes with Mary Pellam, an actress known for her role as Madame Mortimer—a lady detective—in a popular film series and former wife to Percival Unck; a noir detective story in Anchises St. John’s case logs detailing his journey in figuring out where Severin Unck’s body lies as he travels to Pluto for answers; or a gothic horror in the film transcripts when Severin Unck and her crew deal with the weird happenings on the abandoned Venusian town of Adonis. It’s all different! You never know what to expect.

When you combine these narrative forms and genres, it’s an entirely new reading experience. You’ll feel like you’re sitting in front of a radio by your fireplace, listening to the next part of your favorite series, or like you’re watching a riveting documentary of Severin’s life and the people who loved her. I was absolutely captivated by it.

  • Storytelling and filmmaking is deeply appreciated in Radiance.

How do you keep someone who’s dead alive? Through storytelling. Through films. You can have anyone immortalized, and that’s what happens to Severin Unck. She’s the focus of all the stories and films.

You see these characters so interested in storytelling from the way they’re trying to tell what happened and make sense of the terrible events. You also see the love for storytelling and filmmaking in the different narrative forms that’s presented and how it’s meticulously structured. It’s a very visual type of storytelling, which I find absolutely beautiful because you can feel the joy and the love for it. Everybody in Radiance has a story worth telling even if it hurts them.

  • You’ll feel like you stepped into an Old Hollywood production.

Radiance is a performance. It welcomes you with a warm embrace and a blinding smile into its glitz, glamour, and mystery, and pushes you into a cushy theater seat, front row centered, while a well-tailored man struts up the stage, shouting at everyone to sit back and relax with their drinks. That’s essentially how Radiance starts.

You have all these characters who are involved in the film business—creating such films as gothic romances with vampires and ice dragons with sword whiskers or documentaries about the food riots on Mars—and you’re instantly transported into their world. The glamour and the way these characters speak remind me of the 1920s, and the way the film industry is presented reminds me of Georges Méliès’s films (if only the film industry hadn’t made great strides because of Edison’s iron fist on his patent). These characters are very theatrical. Every time they speak is like they’re acting out an elaborate play.

  • Catherynne M. Valente’s writing will leave you waiting with bated breath and hungering for more of its beauty.

Cat has such a wonderful grasp on language and the way she wants to present this story in her writing in this complex narrative structure. The writing is beautiful and very theatrical—very fitting for all these film folks. It is very ornate. Radiance needs to be performed because it breathes so much life, and it doesn’t have any room to be contained in a book. Cat does a beautiful job of wrapping you in the arms of this story like a lover whispering secrets into your ears. It is what will captivate you into the story and the mystery. I love it so much.

  • The mystery unfolds in the most unexpected, yet beautifully satisfying way.

The big mystery: what happened to Severin Unck on the Venusian deserted diving town of Adonis?

It’s what everybody wants to know, and various characters in Radiance are asked to tell their story, their discovery, their truths they never want to face about what happened. Everybody is investigating their own mysteries, and they may tell their story different, but at the heart of it is Severin. All roads lead back to her, and you know what? How everything plays out is shocking and perfect. Only Catherynne M. Valente can pack this book with a wonderfully structured mystery with gorgeous writing and well-rounded characters and leave me with my mouth agape at what unfolded, never wanting these stories to end. She does Severin Unck’s and her loved ones’s stories a justice.


Radiance is strange, but an absolutely rewarding masterpiece that tells a wonderful story like no other! You’ll instantly feel like you’re listening to an old-timey radio show or watching these characters perform in front of your eyes. This is a book that honors storytelling and films and the wonderfulness of it all. You’re part of this crew, trying to make sense of the terrible and to honor Severin posthumously like she deserves.

This is a book that cannot be devoured all at once. It is not a book for everyone. It is a book for a few. I say this because I can see readers finding the writing to be complicated or not understanding the narrative (which isn’t chronological), but I love it. To me, it’s a messy, yet cohesive story that does a perfect job of binding everything together beautifully. When you stick with it until the end, you’ll understand why Radiance is the way it is. It’s completely worth it at the end.

You should pick up this beautiful book because I demand you to! It’s rare to see me write a four paragraph conclusion trying to convince you to do so! If you find yourself unable to get into the story, get the audiobook—narrated by the wonderful Heath Miller—because it’ll instantly transport you into this radiant world with its love for stories, films, space, and callowhales.

Radiance is a book that asks you—no, demands—that you be thrown into the wonderfully ornate and complex storytelling. You’ll need to fix yourself a drink and hold onto those large callowhales for dear life because you’re in for a ride! No matter what, you can expect sheer brilliance and beauty from Catherynne M. Valente and Radiance.



5 Responses to “REVIEW | Oh, Those Scandalous Stars! (Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente)”

  1. Alexa S. says:

    Wow. Wow, wow, wow. I honestly don’t know what else to say in response to such an enthusiastic, detailed review of RADIANCE! It doesn’t sound like something I’d normally read, BUT I find myself unable to deny my curiosity after seeing all you had to say about it. I’m adding this to the list of books I’ll consider reading next year, thanks to your awesome review ;)

  2. Jackie says:

    You first put this book on my radar a few months ago, and it piqued my interest then. And then you wrote this wonderful review. Usually I wait for paperback versions of books, but I am literally going to buy this book this week. I can’t wait any longer.

  3. I have read the first chapter and had so much trouble getting into the writing style. I keep meaning to go back but I’ve not so far. Your review makes me think that I should! Was it a slow read overall? I think I’m afraid it will be. I’m so, so, so glad you loved it!

  4. OH MY GOSH I need this book in my life. It sounds completely weird and I love weird. Plus, Catherynne M Valente <3 <3 <3 I read one of the Fairyland books and fell in love with her writing completely.

  5. Aentee says:

    Yessss Cat Valente is such a wordsmith and all her books are so creative I can’t even. I started this one and already I love her description of the Prologue within the Prologue!! Beautiful review, Cee!!

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