Weak Tea

‘The Splinter in the Sky’ shows promise as a debut novel, but lacks substance and doesn’t really hang together as a narrative

The Splinter in the Sky—Kemi Ashing-Giwa’s debut novel—is a heavy-handed anti-colonial space opera that shows promise, but contains neither enough substance to merit a full novel nor the character development necessary to reward readers’ attention.

The novel’s protagonist Enitan Ijebu is a young tea specialist who thrusts herself into geopolitics when her sibling disappears and someone murders her former lover, the Valbaaran governor.

The Splinter in the SkyIt’s not the first time Enitan has been at the crux of relations between Koriko and its occupying overlords from Valbaara. Though tea is her avocation, her job is as a scribe, translating between Orin, the holy language of the Empire, and Akyesi the profane, provincial language designed by Imperial scholars for its subalterns. A local Orin translator is an anomalous position and means that she works for the church that serves the Empire.

As The Splinter in the Sky opens, the Valbaaran Empire, ruled by its God-emperor or “Imperator,” is at war with the Ominirish republic and has colonized Enitan’s “distant, tidally-locked” moon, Koriko, as part of its military-industrial aggrandizement. In some unexplained way, the Empire has reversed some ecological enriching technology developed by the community-minded Korikese to mine a nearby asteroid.

As a young, powerless provincial, Enitan would be a marginal figure if it weren’t for two things: her translation job and her romantic relationship with Ajana the governor. The former was a scandal and has brought her to some attention even in the Empire, though not by name, and the latter, though ended, was a first love that ended on good terms so the mutual warm feelings continue to give her a certain amount of special access.

The real plot kicks off when Enitan comes home to find her sibling Xiang gone. The Korikese live in “housepods” with assigned, not familial, siblings but Xiang and Enitan are extremely close. The rest of the story follows Enitan as she goes to rescue Xiang — and, on the way, save her homeworld.

The novel just about hangs together, but unsatisfyingly. The antagonistic balance between Ominira and Valbaara is fascinating but vague. The characters are appealing, but sketchily drawn. The world building is tantalizingly clunky—we want to see more but the author shows us little. We learn almost nothing about the working of the Church or the nobility. The “synths” — androids with their own sets of loyalties and loves — are crucial to the story but Ashing-Giwa barely explores them.

Despite its looming presence, even the “Splinter” of the title provides little more than a setting. Though Xiang is nominally an architecture student, their expertise appears only once, and certainly does not help readers get a feeling for this massive flying monolithic skyscraper from which the Empire is run. The author barely shows what makes the Splinter special, or why people take it so seriously. The main details that Ashing-Giwa is careful to share are the black-on-black accoutrements of empire — “square meters of obsidian and onyx and jet.” Colonizing military empires are bad, got it.

Character development is minimal and experiences do not seem to affect people. The one significant time that a character dwells on how it feels to kill someone feels more philosophical — is killing for freedom ever worth it? — than gut-wrenching. They handle romance especially badly, both in how it develops and how it fails to add to the tapestry of the book. Enitan is reputed to have two politician lovers but the narrative fails to compare them in any useful way. Instead, we see only a slightly more dignified portrayal than the smutty one projected by the Valbaaran population. Enitan doesn’t seduce these powerful women, the narrator suggests, they just fall in love with her.

Though Splinter is quite lengthy enough for a novel, it has, like its namesake, uninhabited stories in its midst. It feels like the author took two or three short stories about Enitan and extended, joined and expanded them without sufficient care to satisfy the larger demands of novel-writing. Perhaps Ashing-Giwa’s sophomore attempt will be more successful, there’s ample reason to hope so.

(Gallery/Saga, July 11)


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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward and the author of an ebook about Tears for Fears, the 80s rock band. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter.

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