Book review: Lagoonfire by Francesca Forrest
This is a follow-up to Forrest’s first novelette from Annorlunda Books, An Inconvenient God. Both books star Decommissioner Thirty-Seven, known as “Sweeting” to her friends. However, both books can be read independently; I loved An Inconvenient God (here’s my capsule review at the end of this post!), but you do not need to read it first to enjoy Lagoonfire! But if you did enjoy the first book, you will love the follow-up, which deepens our understanding of Sweeting, her past, and her world.
Sweeting is a decommissioner at the Ministry of Divinities; her job is to officially retire, or “decommission” gods who are fading away due to a lack of human worshippers. Years ago, Sweeting had decommissioned Laloran-morna, god of the warm ocean waves of Sweet Harbor. She successfully retired Laloran-morna into mortal form, but something went wrong: even as a mortal, he retains aspects of his old divinity. Now flooding has disrupted the commercial development of an estuary in Sweet Harbor, and the government suspects that Laloran-morna may be involved. Sweeting is sent to investigate, and stumbles into a mystery with roots stretching far back in time. . . and that also touch her own personal, painful past.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Forrest’s series is the world she’s created in these books. Sweeting lives in a world that feels much like our own, with similar levels of technology and industry--touch-screens, text-messages, bosses that keep tabs on you through tech that you carry on your person; bus transport, apartment buildings, commercial real estate development. But this is also a world of magic and gods, set in a geography that appears inspired by Southeast Asia; and Sweeting and her friends live and work under a controlling, authoritarian government whose contours are only slowly revealed. The portrayal of mundane life under such a government is, in fact, one of the most impressive things about Lagoonfire; this isn’t an overtly nightmarish dystopia. For the most part it doesn’t feel like a dystopia at all. Life seems generally pleasant: children play happily in front of their school, there are tropical juice vendors in the park, art exhibits at museums, and gatherings with friends. The gods that Sweeting decommissions generally accept their entry into mortality, and become her good friends. Nearly everyone is genuinely kind. Life only becomes difficult if you cross the wrong people, go against the government orthodoxy, question the things you shouldn’t.
During the course of this short novel, Sweeting begins questioning things she shouldn’t. Reluctantly, she’s brought to question the foundations of her own life, as well as the official history of the Polity itself. There are heavy themes in this book, including cultural erasure, political oppression, and the conflict between tradition and “progress.” Yet despite this, the writing itself never feels heavy. There are moments of tension, including somewhat harrowing encounters with an official of Civil Order; there’s tension that builds wonderfully to the book’s climax. Yet there’s also a certain lightness of touch throughout, and warmth and generosity shine on every page. This world is one of characters who are all simply trying to do their best—including, perhaps, even the official of Civil Order who threatens Sweeting and her friends. And there’s magic, as I’ve said before. Magic that’s delicately threaded through the story, as in this early scene describing the decommissioned god Laloran-morna:
“The old man who remained when the decommissioning was complete had salt in his eyebrows and thin streams of water trickling down his spine and legs, and the odor of the ocean clinging to him. The dripping-wetness went away after a day or two, but even now, eleven years later, seawater finds its way to him when he’s distressed.”
And: “… seawater bloomed on Laloran-morna’s body, bloomed and effervesced, leaving behind white salt on dark sin.”
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, for there are clever twists and turns. Lagoon is a satisfying mystery story, a love story, a story of secrets and hidden history and self-discovery. It also becomes, in its final pages, a story of quiet and stubborn resistance and hope. This is a story, ultimately, of good people trying to do good in their world, and that in itself is a joy in troubled times. Forrest’s warmth and compassion for her own characters is palpable. The author is working on a third installment of Sweeting’s story, and I can’t wait to see where that next one takes her.