In a world where diplomacy has become celebrity, a young ambassador survives an assassination attempt and must join with an undercover paparazzo in a race to save her life, spin the story, and secure the future of her young country in this near-future political thriller from the acclaimed author of Mechanique and The Girls at Kingfisher Club.
When Suyana, Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, is secretly meeting Ethan of the United States for a date that can solidify a relationship for the struggling UARC, the last thing she expected was an assassination attempt. Daniel, a teen runaway turned paparazzi out for his big break, witnesses the first shot hit Suyana, and before he can think about it, he jumps into the fray, telling himself it’s not altruism, it’s the scoop. Now Suyana and Daniel are on the run—and if they don’t keep one step ahead, they’ll lose it all.
Persona is one of the first titles to come out of Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint SAGA Press, and shows how high Joe Monti is aiming: Genevieve Valentine’s previous novels have been hugely, and rightly, acclaimed. Persona also shows how multi-talented Valentine is as a writer; Mechanique was post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club a Roaring Twenties fairytale retelling without any magic, and Dream Houses a claustrophobic far-future psychological study.
Persona, on the other hand, is a near-future political thriller and critique of modern celebrity culture. It’s a rather subtle novel on some levels, but in its allegorical approach Valentine is one of the more heavy-handed writers out there; alongside, say, Christopher Brookmyre’s more overtly political works (such as his Parlabane books). It takes universal surveillance, the centring of the celebrity-personality in politics (in the US, see Bush’s faux-folksy ways or the cult of Obama; in the UK, see Tony Blair or the attacks against Miliband on grounds of personal presentation), the technological war between celebrities and paparazzi, the increasing importance of SpAds, and more elements of modern politics and popular culture and wraps them up together in a fascinating near-future remodelling of how world politics could work. How we get there from here isn’t discussed in Persona, and Valentine doesn’t seem interested in the questions of either how Faces come to be or how the United Nations becomes the key political player on local, national and international levels. Rather, we’re simply told this is how it is, and indeed have to work out how the world functioned, rather than having it explained to us, and even at the close of the novel that functioning doesn’t appear to be entirely clear.
This is unfortunate, but does not make Persona as a whole fail; instead, Valentine’s novel focuses on Suyana attempting to keep herself alive, trying to work out who has put a hit on her, and turning the tables on whoever that is. If that sounds like a straightforward plot for a thriller, rather than a framework in which to examine closely various aspects of the combination of celebrity culture with politics, you would be right; Valentine’s complex setting is rather placed on the backburner as we watch Suyana try to win her way, and while flashes of it come up at times, they are elements that wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary thriller, such as the diplomat having homosexual affairs (in private, in order to not embarass her nation) or the carefully orchestrated relationships carried on in public and, indeed, in private that have no feelings behind them. Daniel’s storyline doesn’t add anything to this; Persona uses him to interrogate the motives of the paparazzi, but ends up actually largely being a little trite and glib about him, instead of complex or as interesting as one might hope.
For all that, what Persona does, it does very well. It is exciting, fast-moving, full of twists and turns some of which are obvious and others of which are rather more subtle; but Valentine’s amazingly versatile writing style fits itself, here, perfectly to the thriller mode, keeping the story moving, avoiding being bogged down in detail while still painting a very vivid portrayal, for instance, of trendy dive bars and undercover paparazzi operations. Persona keeps moving fast, letting up on occasion but only to allow a human moment or two between the fast-moving fleeing and constant reaction of our protagonists; only as the novel draws to its close does anyone become truly active rather than reactive, much as their histories, we know, are active.
Persona will disappoint anyone going in for detailed or subtle critique of society and politics, but as a near-future thriller with some socio-political commentary in it, Valentine delivers tremendous value for money.