a review by Nalini Haynes
Warning: spoilers, but nothing from the end of the book.
Debris is book one of the Veiled Worlds trilogy, a fantasy set in an alternate magical world.
Tanyana is a girl from the poor side of town who made good by virtue of being very gifted with manipulating pions – a genetic fluke, possibly a legacy from her absent father – and by a lot of hard work. Pions are the basis of magic in this fantasy world: pions act like electricity and magic. Those who cannot see pions are debris collectors, the untouchable class who are, nonetheless, essential to this society where debris is an extremely destructive pollutant. Tanyana has an accident, after which she can no longer see or manipulate pions, but she can see debris. She’s given inadequate medical treatment during her partial recovery, fitted with an experimental debris collection suit, and sent to work collecting debris.
Tanyana is assigned to a debris-collecting team where she’s supposed to learn on the job. Kichlan is the team leader, with a simple brother, Lad, whom he protects. Mizra and Uzdal are twins, and the women are Natasha and Sofia. It’s apparent very early on that Kichlan’s dislike of Tanyana conceals an attraction for her, which is resented by Sofia. Because Kichlan dislikes Tanyana so much, he fails to train her in the bare basics of debris collection and managing her suit. Tanyana discovers she’s as gifted with debris as she was with pions, so she figures everything out on her own, including how to read the maps that come with the suit that no-one else knows how to read, not the collectors and not the technicians.
Devich is the technician who fits Tanyana with her debris-collection suit. Because he gives Tanyana a glass of water in hospital (playing ‘good cop’), she is susceptible to his charms and falls into bed with him when he pressures her. This smacked of Stockholm Syndrome to me: I was thoroughly creeped out by Devich, his selfishness and manipulations of Tanyana. The most appalling scene was when Devich touches Tanyana sexually during a medical and technical inspection in front of his co-worker and a couple of Tanyana’s debris-collecting team. I was deeply concerned that this violation of professional practice appeared to be acceptable in Debris, no acknowledgement the seriousness of a violation of trust leading me to wonder if this is intended as a dystopian theme open to further exploration later in the trilogy. Joanne Anderton made it clear that there is more to come with Devich in later instalments of the trilogy. I hope that this issue is explored and resolved.
While I found the plot engaging, I did have a few concerns. Tanyana is aware that she can’t afford to stay in her beautiful home, that everything hangs on the edge of a knife. She’s also been there before: as a child she went hungry and cold due to poverty, something that often leads to chronic hoarding of food and, if possible, of money. If Tanyana is this resourceful, resilient person, I’d expect her to be proactive in protecting what little she has left rather than waiting passively for the thugs to come to evict her. Tanyana didn’t even pack a bag! When the thugs came, she defeated them, then ran out into the cold with only one item, no bag and no coat. Running away like that would have been more believable if she’d barely managed to escape the thugs, but defeating them, possibly killing one and knocking the other out cold, and then leaving her clothes and possessions behind violated suspension of disbelief for me. I also couldn’t understand why the debris collectors, who are vital to this society’s survival, didn’t strike for better conditions after the first near-disaster.
Before reading Debris I heard other reviewers proclaiming Debris as a gender-bending story and a story about disability. The extent of the gender-bending appeared to be Tanyana’s preference for male attire when attending balls with other pion-manipulators of her standing in society. This puzzled me as Tanyana didn’t seem to have any other gender issues, her lovers appeared to be male; this just appeared to be an affectation born of arrogance and defiance that appeared at odds with the rest of Tanyana’s character and motivations. Initially I was of the opinion that anyone who has grown up hungry and cold as Tanyana had, who has worked so hard to achieve security, would not threaten the status quo so flagrantly or lightly, and yet – and yet if someone defied the odds with a good dose of arrogance in their character makeup… I did think that if Tanyana had a gender-bender lover whom she cared deeply for as inCourier’s New Bicycle, then would have been more believable. Anderton acknowledges the arrogance of Tanyana, so Tanyana’s ingrained attitudes may be developed later.
I was pleased to hear from Anderton herself that Debris is about identity not disability and that her research had been more along the lines of studying quantum theory. Debris works as a coming of age novel, where Tanyana’s separation from family is the loss of her circle of pion binders, her building of her adult identity being what comes after her accident. To be a story about disability there needs to be an understanding of disability culture and the culture of a persecuted minority group, which is largely absent from Debris. Before Tanyana joined the team, her debris collecting team were isolated from other teams and from the debris-seeing elders who had inexplicably escaped debris collection work. There didn’t appear to be an underground culture with which Tanyana could engage, she had to seek out elders herself, bringing her team along on her journey. The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood is an excellent example of a persecuted underground culture co-existing with a bigoted mainstream culture, and Barebackby Kit Whitfield is an excellent exploration of disability in fantasy story without magic.
Debris works as a coming-of-age story because Tanyana’s pion circle is like her family of origin. An old man is responsible for forcing her out of her comfort zone and her position within this family – very Jungian. Tanyana’s quest is then to build a new sense of identity and new relationships, learning about her world along the way. In this sense,Debris has similarities to Veronica Roth’s Divergent, including a similar if not equal depth of feeling and exploration.
Debris’ plot is well-paced and engaging. The magical system of this world is well-thought out, bearing testimony to Anderton’s research into quantum mechanics, coupling it with magic. Debris leaves the reader with questions; while there are hints of the conspirators’ identities, this is by no means resolved. Their motives and goals remain secret. I have theories as to what the future holds for the Veiled Worlds, and I’m curious to see it play out. Debris works as a coming of age novel with added sex.
Debris is highly recommended for readers who enjoy Trudi Canavan’s and Tansy Rayner Roberts’ work – they are the first reviewers for Debris on the Angry Robot website!