Rhapsodic Prose and a Queer Cast You’ll Adore: The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw

Posted 28th August 2021 by Sia in Crescent Classics, Queer Lit, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 4 Comments

The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Sapphic MC, queer cast, major nonbinary secondary character, major genderfluid/bigender secondary character
Published on: 7th September 2021
ISBN: 1645660206
Goodreads
five-stars

A diverse team of broken, diminished former criminals get back together to solve the mystery of their last, disastrous mission and to rescue a missing and much-changed comrade... but they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the secret at the heart of the planet Dimmuborgir. The highly-evolved AI of the universe have their own agenda and will do whatever it takes to keep humans from ever controlling the universe again. This band of dangerous women, half-clone and half-machine, must battle their own traumas and a universe of sapient ageships who want them dead, in order to settle their affairs once and for all. 

Cassandra Khaw’s debut novel is a page-turning exploration of humans and machines that is perfect for readers of Ann Leckie, Ursula Le Guin, and Kameron Hurley.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Highlights

~It’s not ‘fellow clones’, it’s ‘sisters of another syringe’
~If you can shoot it, Maya will shoot it.
~If you can’t shoot it, she’ll shoot it anyway.
~Immortality doesn’t play nice
~AIs are dicks
~I will now read anything Khaw chooses to write

The All-Consuming World is a gemstone grenade of a book, and opening it up is the pulling of the pin; it explodes in your hands, all flashing jewelled shards cutting you to ribbons. Khaw’s prose is a deadly weapon, equal parts beautiful and brutal; the book they’ve written is every bit as hypnotic and dangerous as a siren with a machine gun. You can’t look away, you can’t stop, and you know it’s going to wreck you.

Why be beautiful when you can be seraphic instead?

The blurb for this one is fairly misleading; this really isn’t a heist story. Sure, it’s about getting the old team together for one last job, but the job is really not the focus – in the end we barely see it at all. The All-Consuming World is much more about the characters and their complicated dynamics than it is about anything else; it would be very easy to argue that there’s hardly any real plot – at least as we’re used to thinking of it – at all.

It’s just that that really doesn’t matter, because the book is un-put-downable regardless.

“You’re making a scene.”

“I can make some bodies instead if that helps.”

Maya is our more-or-less main character; the one in whose head we spend the most time. She’s a fist-full of broken glass, canines bared in a snarl, born with a gun in her hand (if not two), as deadly and dangerous to herself as she is to others. Fearless, reckless, rabid.

That’s why Maya is strutting into the bobbit worm’s jaws, with nothing but a ghost for backup, riding on a wing, a prayer, and enough combat know-how to win all four world wars.

I love Maya. I think it’s going to be hard for most readers not to love her. Because gods, is she broken, messed up to the core, and yet it’s not the kind of broken that is self-pitying or whining or any kind of grating. It’s a fierce brokenness, one that takes its shattered pieces and uses the shards as shivs, and Maya is just so compelling, so dazzling. She’s not a caricature or an empty archetype. She blazes. She is so absolutely not a tamed thing, and that is hypnotic even as you know that to touch her is to bleed.

a grin cocked like a loaded shotgun.

Maya used to belong to a mercenary group of clones who called themselves the Dirty Dozen; but most of the others went their own way long ago. Now it’s just Maya and Rita – Rita, the puppet-master, the tactician, the ruthless leader, who has messed with Maya’s biology to the point that Maya is literally addicted to her: serotonin rush when Maya follows orders, less-fun chemicals released when she doesn’t.

Rita served as their compass, a sun for murderers and no one else, lighting the road deeper into the country of sin.

They’re not romantically or sexually involved, but they come as a set. If Maya is the attack-dog, Rita is the master holding the leash.

But you can’t have a gun without a bullet, can’t take a shot without intent. Rita and her, they’re in this together. For good or for ill.

It’s a fucked-up, and therefore fundamentally interesting, dynamic. It’s horrible, it’s awful and painful and leaves the taste of copper in your mouth…it’s like a car-crash, a train-wreck, the kind of disaster you can’t look at and can’t look away from.

Until data corruption do they part.

As clones, Maya, Rita, and the rest of the ex-Dirty Dozen are functionally immortal – for a given definition of immortality. Their brain-maps, memories, and experiences are in some kind of cloud, some form of digital back-up, and if a body happens to die? No worries, just restore from the back-up into a brand-new meat-suit and you’re good to go! You can even make alterations to your next body, if you want, if there’s someone around to make the edits for you before you’re downloaded into your new brain.

But even with the back-ups, it’s still possible for things to go wrong. The reason the Dirty Dozen are getting the band back together is that Rita makes a revelatory proclamation: Elise, one of their crew who died badly, in such a way that there was no coming back…might have survived after all.

For a given definition of ‘survived’.

Rita claims that Elise was uploaded into the Conversation – a kind of closed internet belonging to the Minds, the galactic community of AIs that exist in this far-future. Getting Elise back…is not going to be any kind of easy. Especially since the Minds have decided to hunt down not just the Dirty Dozen, but clones in general; and not just clones in general, but their families, and their originals, and the families of their originals.

That’s a lot of not-so-friendly fire to dodge.

Give her a gun, give her a war, give her bodies to line the floor.

If the part about Elise is even true. Nobody who isn’t chemically made to trusts Rita as far as they can throw her. But the possibility that it might be true is too much for the old gang to resist – because what if? – and so bit by bit, person by person, Maya and Rita draw them back into the fold. For one last big mission.

Hope the mind-killer.

I feel sorry for anyone who ends up reading this book in a physical format, because I would have had a hard time without the dictionary function on my e-reader: Khaw’s prose is wild and wonderful and it’s on you to keep up. I consider myself to have a larger-than-average vocabulary, and I was still asking the dictionary for word-meanings at least every other chapter. But I never felt like Khaw was trying to make me feel stupid. The words you’ve never heard before turn out to be perfect, to nail it, once you know what they mean – every piece clicks perfectly into place like a bullet into a chamber. It’s not pretentious, it’s musical, and the way Khaw uses language is pure magic – the old kind, the primal vicious bloody kind of magic. The All-Consuming World is fucking spellbinding, and a good chunk of that is the cast of fabulous queer persons – cis and nonbinary and genderfluid and all of them scintillating in their very different ways – but most of it?

Most of it is Khaw’s writing. The razor-sharp beauty of their prose. The flawless pacing, the sentence structure, the adjectives and images – it’s all perfect.

its cable looped around one iridescent arm like it is the snake from the Garden of Eve and Why-The-Fuck-Him-And-Not-Lilith

WHY THE FUCK HIM AND NOT LILITH INDEED

I want to call Khaw’s prose beautiful, but reading over all the parts of the book I highlighted, I’m not sure beautiful is exactly the right word. Maybe awesome, in the original sense (inspiring dread, terror, wonder, awe) and the modern one (fucking brilliant) is closer, better, more accurate. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Billy Martin, writing as Poppy Brite; Martin makes his horror novels so much more horrifying by using exquisitely beautiful prose, in essence seducing the reader into a sensual enjoyment of the terrible things that are happening – which is horrifying and sickening when you, the reader, realise it. Khaw’s writing feels similar: terrible things are happening, violent-vicious-awful things, but the scalpel-deft prose makes them beautiful, and described that way it sounds like there should be a dissonance, a contradiction for the reader. But there isn’t, because vicious-violent-awful and gorgeous-wonderful-decadent, the combination of the two, is the point. That’s how Maya views it all, which means the writing style? Isn’t jarring us out of the story; it’s pulling you deeper than should be possible into the main character’s mindset. It’s unbelievably clever, and it works.

That’s far from the only way in which Khaw uses language in insanely clever ways, though. There are very few writers who can create their own brand-new similes and metaphors, rather than relying on the tried-and-tested ones we all recognise – describing the moon as a pearl, for example – but Khaw is absolutely on fire with creation, connecting and comparing things I’d never think to put together, getting you in the gut or the heart with painfully perfect, genius imagery –

You could cut diamonds with her poise

Ayane looks like the last cold gulp of water before the sun goes supernova

a face like a veteran’s tall tale

And then there are the references; Judaic folklore, Greek myth, more I’m sure I didn’t catch all woven into the imagery, the metaphors. There’s the fact that every page roars with the queer-as-in-fuck-you! vibe. There’s the wordplay! There’s so many layers to it all, so many themes, and I cannot help but adore a book (an author) who doesn’t talk down to me, doesn’t slow down for me, expects me to be good enough to keep up. I liked having to look up what some of the words meant, okay? I’m weird like that.

I highlighted so many passages, folx. So many incredible turns of phrase, brilliant images, decadent description. I am in love with this book. I want to propose to it. I swear nearly every page made me swoon.

That is not to say that The All-Consuming World is without flaw. The abrupt ending in particular took me aback – I’m kind of hoping that there was at least one chapter missing from my ARC that will be present in the final copy, because it was like a missing frame in a film: jumping from point A to point G with the transition MIA. And although I personally don’t really care, I’m sure some readers aren’t going to be very happy that the whole book is build-up to a job that we barely see happen. There are a handful of lesser plotlines that kind of dissolve away into nothing without explanation or resolution, too.

But I honestly do not care. I’m here for Maya, for Viridion and Ayane and Constance and yes, because I love to hate her, even Rita too. And I am here for the prose that held me mesmerised from the first page to the last.

back when they were feral: hambering pejoratives, singing out curses, maenad-wild and gorgeous as a bullet flying true.

Before this, I had never read Khaw’s work before. They mostly write horror, and I am a total wimp about horror.

I don’t care. After reading The All-Consuming World, I will read anything Khaw writes.

The All-Consuming World is out on Sept 7th. Go preorder it immediately – and then go submit your receipt to the preorder campaign, because it’s a really good one (and open internationally!)

five-stars

4 responses to “Rhapsodic Prose and a Queer Cast You’ll Adore: The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw

  1. Cass Khaw’s artistry with words is staggering. I read Rupert Wong in spite of being horror-averse (it was on the Subjective Chaos awards list) and she blew me away. I found The All-Consuming World a step too far though – having to stop every few pages to look up a word just threw me out of the story, and for me the specificity of the word choice wasn’t a good enough trade-off.

    Maya tho. Worth it for Maya.

Leave a Reply

(Enter your URL then click here to include a link to one of your blog posts.)