Flowerdust, Gwyneth Jones (1993)
Review by Ian Sales
It was nearly a month now since the news from Gamartha… And overcrowding was weighing heavily on [Ranganar’s] resources. Divine Endurance (p 155)
Between those two sentences, Gwyneth Jones has squeezed a novel: Flowerdust is set during the events narrated in her debut novel, Divine Endurance. That novel told the story of the Peninsula, the angel-doll Chosen Among the Beautiful, the eponymous cat, and the revolt of the Peninsulans against the offshore rulers. Around two-thirds of the way through Divine Endurance, the two main characters, Derveet and Prince Atoon, find themselves waiting in the Southern city of Ranganar for some sign of what their next move should be. And this is when the events of Flowerdust take place.
Refugees have been flooding to Ranaganar and have been placed in a large camp. Whilst visiting this one day, Derveet and Atoon hear of a drug called Flowerdust, a drug they know to be both dangerous and extremely rare. with the help of Endang, an educated male, and Cycler Jhonni, a character who appeared in Divine Endurance (but only in a minor role), they set about uncovering the source of the drug. This leads them north into Timur and a reform camp run by an old Koperasi friend of Derveet’s. The characters, however, soon realise they have stumbled across more than just a cache of the drug, and the last part of the novel leads up to the revelation of what exactly it is behind the reform camp.
However, the story is just as much about the characters – especially Cycler Jhonni and Endang. Their relationship forms one of the major narrative threads of the book, centring around the strange “female” powers he begins to manifest. This is particularly so during the trip north from Ranganar to Timur where his powers go into overload and affects the reality of those around him – shades of Kairos (see here and here)?
The Peninsula has always been one of the better-built fictional worlds, both interesting and sufficiently alien, and leaving the sure knowledge that it continued to live after the story was over. Gwyneth Jones has often been seen as a political writer, and it is this that adds depth to the world of Divine Endurance and Flowerdust. Matriarchal societies may be fairly common in sf, but successful ones are not and I would count the Peninsula with its dapur as one of them.
It is always interesting to see how authors behave when they return to worlds they have previously built. So, if I’ve taken liberties in finding a place to slot Flowerdust into Divine Endurance‘s narrative, then so has Gwyneth Jones in her return to the Peninsula. There are small details that don’t tally across the two novels. Why such revisionism? These changes don’t detract from the novel in any way, but then I’m not sure they add value either. Perhaps it’s just Varleyism (see the Afterword to Jon Varley’s Steel Beach).
On the whole, I think Flowerdust is a more coherent novel than Divine Endurance (and comparisons are inevitable). However, of the two, I’m not sure which is the better. Whilst Divine Endurance is a book that needs to be read carefully and savoured, I don’t think this applies to Flowerdust. This is not to say it isn’t an excellent read, but it is an easier one. It’s a difficult judgment call: Divine Endurance did most of the hard work in setting up the background and (most of) the characters, after all.
Overall, Flowerdust is a highly readable, well-written and valid addition to both Divine Endurance and Gwyneth Jones’ oeuvre. Highly recommended.
This review originally appeared in Vector 179, June/July 1994.