Spend enough time in literary spaces, and you eventually hear about Emily St. John Mandel, an author who uses speculative elements to tell literary tales. She’s a sufficiently towering figure for fans for general fiction that those speculative elements lead to a few reads from genre fans, even though she writes for a different audience. I’ve been meaning to try her work for a while, and this year’s new release, Sea of Tranquility, provided an excellent opportunity.
Sea of Tranquility begins by introducing four seemingly unconnected characters living in four different times—a minor British aristocrat exiled to Canada, a present-day woman trying to reconnect with an old friend, a 23rd century novelist on a book tour, and a 25th century man growing up on a decaying moon colony. The first half of the book serves to establish these characters and provide glimpses into pieces of their lives, which are then revisited after the introduction of the speculative element that ties the disparate threads together.
Given Mandel’s literary reputation, I expected above-average prose and plenty of glimpses into the mundane moments of life, and I certainly got both. Even when the characters are new and it’s not clear where the overarching story is going, she writes the small details of life in a way that’s easy to enjoy. As for the characters themselves, they warrant varying levels of investment. It’s a pretty short novel, and there simply isn’t room to devote significant page time to four perspective characters. And so the investment increases as the timeline moves later, with the first character feeling almost like a one-off prologue and the fourth feeling like the lead, insofar as there is a lead at all.
But while the glances into mundane moments in the characters’ lives were always interesting, there was never any character that got under my skin and made me desperate to know how their story ended. And the mechanism that brought everything together made plenty of sense, but it almost felt too clean in the way everything tied together—I have a stereotype of literary authors leaving things messier, and I felt that the story could’ve used some more messiness. It did allow plenty of opportunity for critique of callous bureaucracy and cultures ignoring red flags, and that made for a good story, although it’s not necessarily anything new (and some of the pandemic references felt a bit on-the-nose).
All together, it led to a book that is obviously good but that never took that next step to be one of my favorites of the year. Perhaps the author’s fame led me to outsized expectations, but I expected either the prose or the characters to be stunning, and instead they were good. It’s a book that I’ll definitely recommend to anyone seeking literary-leaning sci-fi, but it’s also not a book that’s going to hook you on that subgenre if you aren’t already interested.
Recommended if you like: literary-leaning sci-fi, glimpses into mundane moments in life, neat resolution.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Standalone. It’s also a 2022 Release where Family Matters that gets a bit Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.