Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks

This book might have given me an existential crisis. I’m just saying that as a forewarning; it wasn’t a bad book by any means. But the whole time I was reading it, I felt slightly ill-at-ease, especially about the possibly-real impending apocalypse. In Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks, a combination of man-made climate problems and man-made war machines destroy society as we know it. And when I got to the author bio at the end, where I saw that Sparks is getting a PhD in Climate Fiction, it definitely all made sense.

Lotus Blue focuses primarily on Star, an orphan living as a caravan vagrant on the Sand Road, one of the last major thoroughfares untouched by the Red Dead Heart, a thoroughly toxic and radiated desert. When an Angel (a spy satellite) falls out of the sky and a polyp storm breaches a supposedly unbreachable area, everything changes. The title comes from the name of one of the last living great war machines – a Lotus Blue, a sentient and vengeful AI, determined to eradicate its enemies (which may or may not be everyone). The cover blurb compares it to Mad Max, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Neuromancer, which I would agree with. Except I might also add I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, for the Lotus’ sake.

The main quest of this book, when it eventually gets underway, is to stop the Lotus Blue, attempting to kill it forever. Not everyone has this goal, of course, and the viewpoint switches between multiple primary and secondary characters – Star, Allegra, Grieve, Quarrel, Marianthe, and the Lotus Blue itself. The timeline of the book was a little flexible, as events were shown from multiple characters’ points of view at different in the books. The point of view actually switches quite a few times very early in the book, which I often find off-putting, but it wasn’t too bad here.

This book takes place far enough into the future that the wars and the weapons are effectively mythologized – not only the Lotus Blue itself, but the tankers and the angels and the vultures. Everything from that era of time is only faintly remembered to the uneducated; the highly educated (see: rich) have a better knowledge of them (though not necessarily a better understanding). And it’s made explicit at times that this far future world is indeed our own – vague mentions of Iceland and China as places that simply don’t exist anymore, the lists of years of endless war. Without those reminders, it might be very easy to assume that this world is a different one, as distinct as it is from the present.

I really liked the setting, though I felt that it could have used a few more reminders of how it was once our world. I think it would drive home the point of the book more – the endless effects of our actions, in war and as the custodians of this planet. The exact location of where this book takes place is never made clear, though I was curious about it the whole way through. There was a smattering of Indian and Arab names (Benhadeer, Mohandas) alongside more European names (Allegra, Tully, Lucius). But the landscape of the world has changed so much that it likely means nothing about the location.

I didn’t really have any complaints about Star as a protagonist – she’s got agency, she’s multifaceted, she wants to do the right thing. But I also didn’t really like her that much – her motivations aren’t super clear, she doesn’t stand out among the other characters, her interactions with others are lacking. And I felt that the romance between her and Tully Grieve was somewhat shoehorned in, and it didn’t actually feel particularly… heartfelt? Does that make sense? It sort of works as a kind of end-of-the-world about-to-die desperation, but it doesn’t work as actual, real love.

As for the plot itself, it felt prolonged in a lot of ways – like there wasn’t actually enough story to fill the amount of book there was. But on the other hand, it was a really good plot. It was engaging, it was structured without feeling formulaic, and the writing itself is just really good. But the book could have been 50-100 pages shorter and probably not have lost anything. And it was a dense book, too. It does not normally take me as long as this did to read 400ish pages. But then again, that might be because of the existential crisis.

I spent the days I was reading this book thinking about what I would do in this apocalyptic scenario, or any apocalypse. What skills do I know that would be valuable? What can I learn between now and then? Will I be a survivor, a fighter, or will I give up and die in the early days? This book had me wanting to look up survivalist, prepper websites, or medical training, or firearms training. And what’s more, it made it clear to me that that last one was the wrong impulse. That picking up the gun in that desperate scenario doesn’t fix anything in the long term, and from there it only escalates.

I don’t know if I can necessarily call this book a work of hopepunk (the great new alternative to grimdark), but it’s an adjacent work, if nothing else. The world portrayed here is bleak, but people are survivors. Sometimes they survive by becoming bad people, but they just as likely survive by coming together and helping each other. And I don’t know if I can say that there is no hope for the recovery of that world. It wouldn’t be the world as we know it, but it could be something sustainable, something livable, something not actively trying to kill its denizens.

Overall, I’d say that I liked the concept of this book more than I liked the execution, but the execution wasn’t really all that bad either. It’s a solid read, though I may give it some time before I look into any sequels. After all, I can’t go around reading books that give me existential crises every day.

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