I vacillated a lot on this one, during and after the reading. While there were numerous sections that required me to push on through (most of the first ~50 or so pages, for example), there was also no shortage of sections that genuinely captured my attention and encouraged me to keep reading (such as the trips between cities; the scenes with the Gelet).
Characters. It was hard to want to relate to most of the characters. Even sympathetic ones, like Sophie, keep making bad decisions and aren't internally consistent. Mouth is probably the most relatable character, but even she has a few occasions that are a more 'miss' than 'hit'.
Timelessness. The book spends a significant number of pages instilling the reader with how structured the days in Xiosphant are for its residents. When the story moves away from that city, Anders does a phenomenal job of removing that sense of structure. In fact, she's so successful at it that the reader feels as lost as the characters (at least as far as the passage of time is concerned). Once I connected with the characters on that level, I didn't quite know what I was supposed to do with that sense of being removed from time. Since she insisted on leaving me there, the reason must have been important... but I never sussed it out. I couldn't see how the temporal ambiguity enhanced, provided context for or offered clarity on existing sentiments or themes. It was an incredible feat of writing ability; I just couldn't figure out how my feeling of being lost, especially for so long, was supposed to help me appreciate something else about the characters. Or world. Or tone. Or... anything.
Style/voice. I was wholly unprepared for Anders' story-telling style/voice. It's almost child-like; she's able to convey big ideas or feelings, such as wonder, awe, pain, and suffering with a simplicity that is understandable on the most basic level, and do so without robbing any of those feelings or ideas of their weight or complexity. Her presentation of certain emotional realizations or motivations demands empathy from her reader and seizes their attention in such a way that the reader is unable to focus on anything else. Possession of either attribute is amazing, but to have both of them? And make such splendid use of them? Kudos, Charlie Jane Anders.
I feel there's more good than bad in what I read, but the book never quite 'clicked' for me. Anders will remain on my radar; her voice and style are entirely too unique to pass up in the long term. She also makes some fabulously on-point observations, examples of which lay in the quotes section (and serve as the title of this review).
Recommended for: anyone who wants to read something written with feeling; those wanting to experience a visceral connection to various (intellectual, emotional) abstractions; fans of sci-fi with a YA spin/flavor
Some quotes for sampling/posterity/consideration:
"You want to know what I've learned? That I don't know anything. Time passes, even when you can't see it, and people keep grudges too long and die too soon."
"You can trust me, I want to bite you."
"Listen to yourself, hear your own footsteps, your breaths, your heartbeats, oh, how many rhythms you make as you come and go! you are an orchestra."
"People here are not accustomed to seeing economic disputes settled with guns, but every economy runs on bullets, one way or another."
"Part of how they make you obey is by making obedience seen peaceful, while resistance is violent. But really, either choice is about violence, one way or another."