by Jo AndertonTanyana is an architect about to construct a massive, prestigious statue in the city of Movoc-under-Keeper. It should be a career-defining moment. But as the inspectors look on something goes wrong during the final stages of erecting Grandeur, and not even Tanyana's skill or that of her nine-point circle is enough to control the pions that usually obey her every command. There's a disaster, and Tanyana is left with extensive injuries, a broken statue, and the shame of losing all of her abilities to see and manipulate pions.
In Debris pions run everything. They're sentient points of light which can be manipulated to build and run almost anything, including buildings, lighting, and even bits of people in medical applications. Their discovery has revolutionised the country of Varsnia. Their counterpoint is debris, a kind of worm-like waste product that builds up wherever pions are used. If debris isn't contained and cleared up it interferes with pions, causing chaos if there's a lot of it around. It's an intriguing magic system.
Debris refers to this specific magical pollution, but it could also stand for the people who are left behind in Varsnian society, and the emotional and physical fallout from traumas like the one Tanayana suffers. For much of the story she is preoccupied with what she's lost. She has to come to terms with her injuries and her sudden loss of social station. The humiliations stack up, and soon every interaction and every place she goes seems to emphasise the grinding poverty and powerlessness she's reduced to. She's denied justice and no-one seems to want to listen to her. She's also troubled by strange men who follow her and watch her constantly. There's something inhuman and puppet-like about these men.
Tanyana's new colleagues bring further enigmas and tensions. The half-wit Lad is big and childlike, yet he's dangerous when confused. He tends to be over-enthusiastic, especially when Tanyana's near. So why is he the strongest amongst them, and what are the voices he can hear that no-one else can? His brother Kichlan is fiercely protective of him, but what is he so afraid of? The collection team is full of broken, scarred and fallen people, each with their own problems. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Debris is the subtle ways these relationships develop as nuances of trust, jealousy and attachment ebb and flow. There's romance, but a certain wrongness about Tanyana's relationships make them more curious than racy, although they're sometimes both. There's a growing feeling of paranoia, and of something very rotten under the surface of Varsnia's outwardly perfect society. It's a very intricately imagined setting, in an old city which seems to have layer upon layer of history to fall back on. And while the worldbuilding is clever the pace, characters and action sequences stand up to scrutiny as well. Even though pions and debris are a kind of magic there's enough of a sense of danger and a consistency in their behaviour. So the story remains scary. When disaster strikes we don't expect Tanyana to brush her problems aside with no more than a word and a wave of her hand.
Debris is a fast read, and very well put together. I was immersed in its world at every stage, and fascinated by its characters. Tanyana may be too proud for her own good, but Jo Anderton has written a novel she deserves to take pride in.
1st September 2011
Review © Ros Jackson