Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

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Valente’s novels are hard to describe because they are so crazy and random and ambitious. This is about a documentarian Severin who investigates the disappearance of a town and becomes a mystery herself. This is about what would happen if during the 1920s we colonized the planets in our solar system. This is about space whales!


The reader is confronted by a melting pot of genres: fantasy, mythology, science fiction, mystery, fable and it’s impressive how Valente blends them together. In a clever sequence Severin’s father tries to write a movie script based off of the story of his daughter’s disappearance and struggles to find the right genre to tell her story. How do you tell the truth of a real tragedy? We see the story unfold as a myth, a noir, a gothic mystery, a fairy tale, and a whodunnit, never retracing footsteps but always getting more and more pieces of information. The central plot of this book is concerned with Severin’s disappearance and when Valente plays with form in order to tell that story she is most effective.

Radiance thematically is concerned with storytelling, specifically filmmaking. Both Severin and her father love telling stories through movies, but have different approaches. Severin is a documentarian who has little patience for fiction, while her father loves spinning far-fetched tales with outlandish costumes and plots.They both view the world through the lens of a camera but make completely different interpretations of what they see. What is the better form to tell the story of what happened? The novel doesn’t definitively answer this question, but shows that the act of making the attempt is an honorable one worth pursuing.

The result is that the readers are forced to engage with the mechanics of storytelling and perspective. Deciding what happens depends on who you believe.

Valente covers a lot of ground with this book. Sometimes she veers a little too far from the central mystery and the story drags, but this is a world that you will be grateful to spend time in.

Goodreads rating: 3 stars

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

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