The Book of Joan
Author: Lidia Yuknavitch
Page Count: 267
Original Publication Date: 2017
Genre(s): Adult fiction, Dystopian, Sci-fi
When Earth is ravaged by endless wars, the wealthiest humans evacuate to a safe haven, known as CEIL, floating above the planet. CEIL sucks Earth’s resources and leaves those left behind to die; meanwhile, everyone living on CEIL becomes a victim to a new kind of evolution, leaving them pale white, hairless, and sexless. As reproduction becomes a thing of the past, CEIL’s leader Jean de Men struggles to find the solution, while back on Earth, a girl known as Joan of Dirt becomes what’s left of humanity’s last hope.
I’m all about sci-fi and dystopian literature, so I was very excited to get my hands on this one after reading the synopsis: a dystopian re-telling of Joan of Arc. It started out slow, boring, and confusing, and though the action and intrigue increased, my enjoyment, unfortunately, did not.
The novel is broken down into three books, each chapter alternating perspectives between Christine, a CEIL inhabitant, and Joan. Christine’s chapters are told in first-person, while Joan’s are in third. Christine has a plan to take down Jean de Men, even if it means destroying herself and all aboard CEIL; Joan pretty much has the same goal, though her true destination isn’t realized until much later in the story.
The Book of Joan has an interesting premise, but manages to fall flat in perhaps the most important element to a dystopian text: worldbuilding. The plot just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I felt like the wrong things were overplained and key plot points were underexplained. I always hate when critics say the dystopian/fantasy/sci-fi story wasn’t believable, because it’s obviously fiction and doesn’t need to sound legit, but I think I understand what they mean, now. It’s easy for me to accept and imagine a fictionalized world, but when it isn’t fully explained or things don’t seem to add up, like in Joan, it kind of ruins the story. So, in the worldbuilding aspect, the book failed.
Writing-wise, however, it soared. Yuknavitch’s writing is extremely poetic and epic. Even though the story didn’t quite make sense, it almost didn’t matter because Yuknavitch told the story so captivatingly. I’ve never read any of her other works, and I don’t know if I ever will, but I think her writing is what saved this book for me.
That, and the characters. I truly felt bad for Christine, pining after a gay man her whole life, and then suddenly losing the most human part of herself: her sexuality. Her lust. Her reproductive organs. I felt bad for Joan, bearing such a weight upon herself and always losing, losing, losing. The emotions were raw and, coupled with the way it was all written, really tore out my heart.
One thing I didn’t really understand, though, is how Jean de Men came to be “the villain.” That puzzled me. He was characterized as this totally horrible, cruel, disgusting dictator, and yet we didn’t get a whole lot of backstory for him. In fact, this is one of the fist villains I’ve come across in a while that I feel no sympathy, no care at all towards, because we literally do not see anything of him except that he rose to power and became a dick:
“We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power. Our existence makes my eyes hurt.”
Reading that, though, kind of made me think of another celebrity who’s risen to power in real life……… An intentional stab, there? Probably. Anyway, I think Jean de Men needed more of a backstory.
Also, wow, for its characters not having a sex, this novel is incredibly sexual. From artificial penis gizmos to imaginative masturbation, this book is full of sexual frustration. Seriously. And thanks to the end of the novel, I now know a lot about the genitalia of the female spotted hyena. That’s something I’ve never been curious about ever. So, thanks. I think.
Though my expectations were not met, I still fairly enjoyed this novel. It just didn’t meet my high expectations.
–“Everything in a life has more than one story layer. Like skin does: epidermis, dermis, subcutaneous or hypodermis. My history has a subtext.”
–“He makes me laugh. Sometimes I think that’s the deepest love of all.”
–“Living a life meant knowing you might be killed instantly, like one who wanders into the path of a runaway train.”
–“Be careful of what stories you tell yourself.”