Editors' note: Kristin Landon tragically passed away in 2019, shortly after this piece had been commissioned. In the light of this news we debated whether we should carry this review, but finally decided that giving thoughtful critical attention to her final novel would be an appropriate tribute. Maya C. James commented that "the science fiction community has lost a brilliant, dreaming mind, and we are thankful to have had a chance to read her work." A more personal tribute, by Athena Andreadis, can be found here. We'd like to extend our condolences to Kristin Landon's family and friends.
Kristin Landon’s Windhome is a tale submerged in grief, engraved with generational trauma, and sealed with a sense of loneliness as cold as the wind that defines the mysterious world of Windhome. Landon balances this overwhelming grief with moments of human ingenuity and triumph that speak to her ability as a seasoned writer and researcher. Even with minor pacing issues, Windhome is a complicated and well-executed novel about a first-contact mission gone wrong in unexpected ways.
Landon’s strengths lie in her worldbuilding and character development, both of which the cover alludes to. The cover, illustrated by Hugo Award-winning Julie Dillon, indicates the raw grief that this book navigates, and nearly loses itself to. Vika, one of the main characters, slumps in the snow, blood seeping from between her fingertips, as if she has let something important and life-altering escape her grasp. The stars, frequently mentioned as both beautiful and overwhelming throughout the novel, submerge half of her body like a rising, black wave. I returned to the cover during particularly tense moments in the book, hoping to understand what event would provoke such grief and horror. Although it did not take me long to understand why some characters would experience such deep sorrow, the cover spoke volumes to the overwhelming emotions of this novel.
Even Landon’s opening chapters place her characters in overwhelming, unexpected situations. After waking from a deep slumber, Vika and her crewmates, Pierre and Anke, realize they are the leftovers of a Destroyer (evil alien race) raid on their ship during their deep slumber. I use the word "leftovers" here intentionally—this trio may have been selected to save Earth, but they are the benchwarmers of this expedition—the backups, the assistants, to those much greater than them. They are not meant to lead, yet they have found themselves at the front lines of an apparently doomed mission. And after a brief investigation, it appears that their counterparts have been carefully, and surgically, removed from their mission—a reminder that these humans are up against a powerful, mysterious race they know nothing about and must actively pursue to study.
Thousands of stars burned there, a bitter glory. He had never seen such stars in the dusty skies of Earth. Here the night was a flawless emptiness between himself and infinity. He stood exposed on the backbone of an alien world, waiting for death to find him. To find them all.
Their journey begins without mercy, and the erasure of a stasis, which is only revealed in later chapters, is a compelling method of characterization. I only come to know the characters through their worst, since they are pushed to their limits immediately upon their awakening, even if their minds and bodies are not ready. This jarring beginning opens the door to their greatest strengths (in Anke’s case, composure, in Vika’s, empathy, and Pierre’s, dignity), and show us what these characters are made of. I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly the characters move away from their memories and accept their fate away from home. Landon not only tells us that these are the humans best suited for this mission, but shows us through their actions and thoughts. While Vika may be the least experienced of her two companions, even she proves her expertise when she is needed the most.
After seeing the characters behave in such an overwhelming world, it becomes apparent that the real questions at the heart of Landon’s novel are as follows: how do intelligent, capable humans function under constant grief and consistent threat of annihilation? And, how much different is their behavior than the alien civilization of the Anokothu, who have already adapted to this threat? Over the course of her novel, Landon offers unsettling answers. To begin with, these intelligent, capable people crack. They are fragile. Their moral strengths become their weaknesses, and constantly threaten their survival. Luckily I cannot recall any particularly frustrating lapses of judgement that made me want to toss the book across the room. Still, the characters are far from perfect, and make irrational mistakes at times, but these mistakes make them even more accessible in such a frightening world.
She unfolded the packet and took out the pictures. The first, made a few hours ago, showed herself. Unsmiling, looking straight into the imager. Procedure: Establish that the images represent physical reality. She walked forward slowly, holding up the square of plastic.
Like the trained, composed professionals they are, the characters of Windhome think about, instead of simply reacting to, the strange new world around them. Vika’s first contact with the aliens shows not only her training as a biologist, but how Landon’s scientific background informs her imaginative world. Landon not only has a background in chemistry, where she has a degree and works as a research lab technician, but also works as a freelance copyeditor for medical, scientific, and technical books. Unfortunately, the pacing is sacrificed at times to describe the scientific process, and some of the passages border on info-dumping (e.g., lengthy passages about how technology worked, awkward phrasing about laws, etc.). However, this issue was not severe enough to detract from my overall impression of the novel. Rather, it contributed to a general sense of curiosity about Windhome.
Although the pacing slows in these moments, and Landon could have benefitted from some trimming of her explanations, she also uses this space to deepen my trust in the capabilities of Vika, Anke, and Pierre. Even when they work in their elements, their work is tainted with bitterness and fatigue. Vika and her crew must sift through horrific anecdotes of war tragedies—translating eulogies and elegies into raw data that can be used to protect Earth. Landon does an excellent job of giving our characters a wide variety of challenges, particularly with their interactions among each other. At times, while reading, I came within the orbit of burnout from the sheer sorrow contained in this book. However, occasional moments of discovery and breakthrough eased this constant tension.
“But—” Vika seemed to struggle for words. “There should be a way.”
“Once there was,” Kelru said. “The Destroyers took that from us. And left our world poisoned, so that these things happen far more often than they once did.”
Landon brilliantly develops the Anokothu, to a point where the alien race hardly seems alien at all. They are a fully developed civilization that is only comparable to humanity’s history in terms of its depth and richness. While many first contact missions fall into a familiar pattern of hostile, primitive aliens, the Anokothu are clearly civilized, even if they lack certain “modern” tools, by humanity’s standards. Landon expertly places the bitter laws of the Anokothu into the context of the bitter world they live in. Landon also does an excellent job of showing various relationships of the Anokothu both within and outside the context of their cultural norms. There are multifaceted tensions and passions between the characters’ relationships—an estranged son and his powerful mother, human women and Anokothu women, and survivors and destroyers. The relationships of the women in this novel evoke a strange intergalactic understanding of femininity, which allows Landon to delve into a gendered analysis of the end of the world. After all, with the threat of annihilation also comes the question of reproduction. Some of the females of the Anokothu choose to separate themselves from the men, but only offer brief explanations of this self-enforced separation. This creates an uneasy sense of equality (though not quite feminism as we would understand it) that I wanted to know more about. The tragedy of the Destroyers has also left this planet highly polarized—a young generation trying to outgrow the trauma left behind, an elderly council with an unclear direction, and the women who live amongst one another rather than give into their reproductive desires.
Although I must praise Landon’s worldbuilding and character development, and though the bits of her prose I have sampled in this review are stunning, these only appear in moments. This book simply did not stir my curiosity or completely unsettle me in a way that I hoped it would. Our protagonists face multiple challenges—the environment, rigid cultural norms, and the limits of their bodies—but these challenges distract from the Destroyers, a threat that I felt ignorant and indifferent to as the novel progressed. For most of the novel, the Destroyers are just a placeholding name for a danger that infuses trauma into the generations to come. They do not live up to their ominous and overused name, even with the tension built up over the novel.
Overall, I enjoyed Windhome, but did not feel strongly one way or another after closing the book. After such a haunting story, I felt disappointingly satisfied that all was well, even after shocking plot twists and tragedies. A novel about discovery should provoke fear and more than just passive inquiry within me. Although Windhome is about character-driven first encounter missions, generational trauma, and loneliness, at its heart is the wind, and the space between worlds. Landon makes this space between—the space between Earth and Windhome, wind and rock, and life and death—a tangible threat to three very capable protagonists.
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