I enjoyed the first of the Binti novellas. The second (Binti: Home) I found less engaging and also effectively incomplete as a story. Binti: The Night Masquerade is the third and is the missing second half of Binti: Home as a story and I really struggled to finish it. (Spoilers follow).
Binti has returned home with her companion Okwu the Meduse and has gone into the desert to discover the secrets of her father’s people (as told in book 2). The story starts where the last book finished with Binti seeing either events or a premonition of events back home with her family who are under attack by the Khoush people.
The stakes are high with her family possibly trapper inside a burning cellar, her father’s family revealing a long hidden connection to a different set of aliens, Binti acquiring new powers, answers about the strange alien artefact she discovered as a child, a potentially re-ignited interstellar war, and a fatal encounter at a peace conference. Add to this a repeated vision, loaded with significance of Binti flying through the rings of Saturn.
Yet…somehow none of it matters. There’s a very odd dislocation in the story that is repeated so often with each of the potentially life changing events that occur that I can’t believe it is accidental but which don’t appear to serve the story well. To be fair to Binti, she does go through more than one literally mind-altering experience, so the initial shifts between her desire to get back to her family (who she believes may be in mortal danger or dead) and revelatory visions of the past make narrative sense (but don’t work aesthetically). However, this same process of raising stakes and then answering with anti-climax continues throughout (most notably with the Saturn’s rings vision but also with the looming inter-species war that just gets forgotten about?).
I can’t fault the story for having ideas. There’s a whole pile of them and also a whole pile of events but they all seem to contrive not to matter. That kind of distancing of character from events can work powerfully (e.g. in the work of recently departed Gene Wolfe) and I can’t help feeling that I’ve missed the point with this story.
There’s a point late in the book where Binti has just come back from the dead (thanks to the intervention of the child of spaceship) and she herself learns that her family isn’t dead, which would naturally be a major emotional peak of the book. Instead the story drifts off in another direction with no happy re-union which makes the previous apparent deaths feel less significant. Or are we supposed to be troubled by revenant-Binti’s lack of interest in now-revealed-to-be-alive family’s well being?
There’s a lot going on here with death and rebirth and transformation: all themes that keep occurring in the Binti series but which here fall flat. I don’t have the critical skill to say why they fall flat here — perhaps there are too many cases of them, perhaps the shorter format hasn’t allowed the transformations that had already occurred to Binti to be properly explored. I don’t know but by the end it felt like just a bunch of stuff happening.