Ana is new. For thousands of years in Range, a million souls have been reincarnated over and over, keeping their memories and experiences from previous lifetimes. When Ana was born, another soul vanished, and no one knows why.
Even Ana’s own mother thinks she’s a nosoul, an omen of worse things to come, and has kept her away from society. To escape her seclusion and learn whether she’ll be reincarnated, Ana travels to the city of Heart, but its citizens are suspicious and afraid of what her presence means. When dragons and sylph attack the city, is Ana to blame?
Sam believes Ana’s new soul is good and worthwhile. When he stands up for her, their relationship blooms. But can he love someone who may live only once, and will Ana’s enemies—human and creature alike—let them be together? Ana needs to uncover the mistake that gave her someone else’s life, but will her quest threaten the peace of Heart and destroy the promise of reincarnation for all?
-synopsis and cover art courtesy of goodreads.
Atmospheric Analysis: This is a very pretty cover with a very pretty butterfly and a very pretty (really photoshopped) model. It’s also the girliest cover ever. Sure, the book itself is rife with girl cooties, but this is kind of the Lisa Frank Trapperkeeper of YA covers.
Planetary Class: In the grand tradition of Star Wars, Jodi Meadows mingles magic and laser guns. Incarnate is science fantasy, or very very very soft sci-fi, or maybe fantasy with a technological twist.
Mohs Rating: Centaurs? Soul readers? I’m going to call this a 1.
Planetary Viability: Unknown. The fantastical worldbuilding is consistent and sound within its own internal rules, but even by the novel’s conclusion, we’ve only scratched the surface of the setting.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: Meadows’ writing strongly evokes setting and sensory details. It’s reminiscent of Brian Jacques or Mercedes Lackey, but with a rhythm and lyricism all her own.
Expanded Report: In one of my favorite-ever pieces of Internet writing, a blog post at tor.com called “SF Reading protocols,” Jo Walton writes:
Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience. It’s a lot of what I read for. Delany has a long passage about how your brain expands while reading the sentence “The red sun is high, the blue low”—how it fills in doubled purple shadows on the planet of a binary star. I think it goes beyond that, beyond the physical into the delight of reading about people who come from other societies and have different expectations. . . . SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues.
The world-as-central-plot-mystery can be one of the most unique and signifying aspects of a science fictional work. As the writer applies other aspects of story to the text, he or she must also seed both enough intrigue and enough hints to rouse the curiosity of the reader and slowly render a cohesive world. In this regard, Jodi Meadows’s debut Incarnate, out next month, is one of the most successful YA sci-fi novels I’ve read in years.
The world of Range at first feels like your typical fantasy setting. There are sylphs and dragons and centaurs who circle a beautiful city with a massive library and towering spires. But Meadows introduces one important difference right up front: the people here are immortal, and their souls have been reborn into one body after another for five thousand years. This has huge ramifications on the social structure of Heart, their central city. The world is a utopian one, free from prejudice thanks to the frequent switching of races, genders, and ages that the inhabitants enjoy. With all the time in the world, people do work they love, and many seem to dedicate their lives to dancing, music, baking, or even science with little concern for economics. They never have to worry about losing their loved ones or their friends, because death just means that another body—another lifetime together—is right around the corner.
Ana is a newsoul, the first in five thousand years. Raised in isolation by an abusive mother, who is horrified to lose the old friend who was supposed to get Ana’s body, Ana grows up with few social graces. This isolation is shown to good effect in the story. Ana is hot-tempered, prickly, labile—realistic in her strengths, insecurities, and fears. She’s a very real heroine, and very really eighteen.
We follow Ana out of her isolated woodland cabin toward Heart. After a sylph attack, she’s saved by Sam, a charming old soul who eventually promises his people that he’ll see to Ana’s education (something not required of even younger children in Heart—they’ve had many lifetimes to learn, after all). Because Ana is as new to this world as we are, we learn about it slowly, through her eyes.
For some readers, the surface events–the visits to the market and library and the dancing and piano playing and romance–might feel a little well-worn. Sam is definitely a cutie, and there are some steamy passages, but there’s enough SFnal romance on the market right now for their relationship to feel a touch typical. But Incarnate isn’t a romance, not at its heart. Instead, it’s a science-fantasy mystery, raising questions not just about Ana and her uncharted new life but about the nature of Range itself.
Because the deeper we get into Heart, the more we learn that everything is not what it seems. For one thing, the “typical” fantasy creatures are described very different from how they typically appear in high fantasy:
The dragons came from the north. They looked like giant flying snakes with short legs, and talons like eagles. Their wings were as wide as their bodies were long. They were beautiful, but we’d already fought our way through shadow creatures that burned, horse people who used human skin as clothing, and giant humanoids who destroyed everything they saw” (ARC edition, 139).
I mean, “horse people who used human skin as clothing” doesn’t sound like the centaurs I remember from mythology.
The dragons, particularly, seem to have a unique relationship with the central city of Heart. They attack its temple, an eerie structure that the first humans just found lying there, and they spit a green caustic acid on any human who would try to interfere. Their behavior is described as regimented, but fundamentally strange. As a sci-fi reader, I found this mystery very intriguing.
But even more intriguing was the mystery of Heart itself. The first reincarnated humans found it waiting for them, supposedly left by a god for their use. But the walls seem to have a voice and a heartbeat and the old fogeys in the city seem to both have no idea why this is the case. And they don’t care to investigate it, either.
I cared, though. I reached the passage that described the throbbing heartbeat of the city’s indigenous walls and gasped. This delicious moment of mystery reminded me of the first appearance of the polar bear in LOST–both a hint and proof that the world of the work was not everything it seemed.
In this way, I suspect that Incarnate’s closest analog is not your typical YA fantasy fare but instead something like Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first of the Riverworld books. In the Riverworld, the dead of humanity–all of it—are reborn naked on the side of a river. They’re immortal, and given an endless supply of food, but otherwise, they—and the reader—are in the dark. The rest of Farmer’s series is about exploring the truth of their situation.
And below its surface, that seems to be what Meadows is doing here. It’s a risky move; conceptual mysteries like this don’t always pay out in a satisfying way (come to think of it, neither LOST nor the Riverworld saga really did). And non-genre readers, or readers who want their genres more neatly delineated, might just not see the point. But watching an author take such risks in modern YA sure is exciting, and I absolutely can’t wait to see where the mysteries of Range lead.
I should mention that Meadows’ book is also gorgeously written, filled with evocative descriptions of setting and scenery and food and music and kissing. It’s also a thoughtful book. Despite initial hiccups in letting love transcend their bodily forms, the people of Heart are queer and genderbendy and just don’t care, in a way that’s completely in keeping with their unusual lifecycle. And Ana’s struggle with purpose and mortality is touching and resonant, too. As much as it reminded me of SF works like the Riverworld series, it also reminded me of books set in the Tortall or Redwall or Valdemar universes, cozy fantasy classics. Incarnate has a lot going for it—but if you’re like me, the mystery might have the strongest pull of all.