David Bowles’s novel The Blue-Spangled Blue (which was initially published in 2009, but recently rereleased in 2021) is a story that feels like it should work much better than it does. Set in a far-future, postimperial universe in which a newly invented faster-than-light drive system has allowed Earth to reconnect with dozens of isolated human colonies, the story of The Blue-Spangled Blue focuses on Brando D’Angelo, an Italian linguistics professor who flees Earth for an unknown world after his mother attempts to bully him into an arranged marriage.
Arriving on the distant planet of Jitsu, Brando immediately falls in love with Tenshi Koroma, a famous architect on this world who has similarly been cast out of her own politically elite family, due to her decision to join a supposedly heretical religion. While Jitsu’s state religion follows the Dominian Path, teaching that its followers must pursue a transcendent state of existence called Quantum Enlightenment by living lives utterly consumed in meditation and inward self-reflection (ignoring broader social responsibilities in the process), Tenshi’s alternate religion teaches that Quantum Enlightenment must be achieved through selfless acts meant to improve the lives of others. Together, Tenshi and Brando bond over their mutual distrust of Jitsu’s prevailing theocratic institutions, with Brando soon coming to be looped into a complicated political struggle against Tenshi’s uncle, an ultranationalist politician named Santo Koroma who seeks to preserve his culture by keeping Jitsu isolated from the rest of the universe.
Concurrent with this narrative is a dense secondary story line distributed across numerous viewpoint characters. While Tenshi and Brando build a life together, working to establish a secular government on Jitsu, Santo works in secret to enact his own nefarious plot. Having decades earlier kidnapped Tenshi’s twin sister, Samanei, because he mistook her symptoms of schizophrenia for spiritual powers, Santo now uses his authority in Jitsu’s government to keep Samanei held in near constant isolation, as he regularly consults the supernatural beings he believes she channels and formulates a plot to turn Jitsu from a theocracy into a true dictatorship.
Yet as the story develops further, it becomes clear to the reader that Samanei may indeed truly be the Oracle whom Santo thinks her to be—and that she could very well be communing with a supernatural entity of some kind that is working to help Santo in his goals.
This introduces a fascinating layer of ambiguity to the novel’s exploration of religion. While Brando and Tenshi—motivated by Tenshi’s conviction that spiritual pursuits must entail selfless acts meant to help others—pursue the formation of a secular government on Jitsu, Santo secretly works in collaboration with Samanei to hire a deadly crime syndicate that will commit numerous acts of violence on Jitsu—hoping to one day use these atrocities to justify the imposition of martial law, so that he can isolate Jitsu from the rest of the universe.
Here is why The Blue-Spangled Blue’s story should have worked: Samanei’s identity as an Oracle who can channel a supernatural entity implies that Santo’s aims (however immoral they may be) may actually be in line with the will of the deity whom both he and Tenshi worship. This leads the reader to an intriguing question: if Tenshi’s hopes of reshaping Jitsu’s government into a more egalitarian institution are based on a flawed understanding of the will of the god she claims to worship, then is she wrong to pursue these goals? Is the value of the ideals to which Tenshi dedicates herself defined entirely by the will of a supernatural being, or do the core values of her religion somehow transcend the literalist nature of the god whom she follows? Unfortunately, the book struggles to follow through on a meaningful exploration of the questions its plot elicits. The story itself is haltingly paced, while the characters often seem to exist not as dynamic actors in the narrative, but instead as figureheads onto which the ideas of the novel are painted.
One demonstration of the issues that the book struggles with appears early on. After a prologue that declares to the reader that this is the story of two “star-crossed lovers” who against all odds survive the ravages of history, the novel then formally introduces Brando D’Angelo as he arrives at Jitsu, only to have the shuttle to the planet’s surface delayed by a massacre that breaks out at a Temple. In a sequence that rapidly shifts perspectives between numerous characters, the novel details how this massacre was secretly carried out by a crime syndicate called the Brotherhood, which is working at Santo’s behest. Eventually, the novel introduces Tenshi as she receives word that her aunt Maryam (Santo’s wife) has narrowly escaped this ordeal with her life. Tenshi immediately calls her traumatized relative to offer what little comfort she can, only to instantly realize that Santo is monitoring this call in secret. The exchange reads:
“Tenshi, soburinim, good to hear from you. It is a harrowing time for Jitsu, and she needs you joined to her children.”
Tenshi rolled her eyes. Maryam might be respected in Kinguyama because of her husband, but the woman was vapid and not at all eloquent. The clichéd rhetoric on her lips was suspicious. Something was not quite right, beyond the heap of cadavers in the middle of the teyopan. Tenshi decided to draw out whoever was coaching her beyond the broadcast beam.
“May your yearning soul touch the Eight in this trying time. Remember that the evils of this false reality are many, but the truth a singular path from your soul to ra-Yindawo. No matter how terrible the things you’ve seen, whatever they may’ve done to you, know that it’s all an illusion, every blow, every blast, every spattered bit of...”
Maryam’s face began to fall, her eyes blinking fast, her breath coming in gasps. She suddenly winked out, and in her place appeared the chiseled visage of Santo, slate eyes and gray stubble standing out against his normally smooth obsidian skin.
While the conversation that eventually follows between Tenshi and Santo is itself genuinely fascinating for how it introduces the philosophical conflicts of the story (specifically how Tenshi’s and Santo’s conceptualizations of Quantum Enlightenment differ), the fact that this exchange is introduced with Tenshi using her aunt’s very real trauma to force Santo to reveal himself makes the resulting debate difficult to accept. In the above passage, Tenshi deliberately triggers memories of the massacre that Maryam endured just hours earlier, seemingly for no reason other than to cause an emotional breakdown in her aunt that then forces Santo to talk to her directly. Bowles seems to have intended this scene to demonstrate just how manipulative a character Santo is (not only has he secretly organized the massacre, but he’s also used his wife’s trauma to coerce Tenshi into abandoning her religion). However, Tenshi basically does exactly what Santo does in this scene, playing Maryam’s trauma for personal gain—and this is a fact of which the novel seems utterly unaware as it rushes into a theological debate between its two core characters.
This forced quality persists as the story develops, with many scenes in the novel seeming to exist entirely to allow various characters to posture so as to better elicit the core ideas that the book seeks to introduce. This is the case even when the resulting interactions come across as at best hollow and at worst heartless. The content of these scenes does at times prove fascinating, but the reader is often left with the sense that Bowles is just flooding the narrative with still more ideas, rather then exploring those themes that he has already touched upon.
Even this could in a way have worked, since the eclectic and scattered nature of the first half of The Blue-Spangled Blue often conveys the sense that Bowles is building an intricate plotline that hasn’t yet begun. In one chapter, Tenshi and Brando learn that Santo has encouraged immigration to Tenshi’s hometown from Jitsu’s other cities, resulting in the political demographics of the government they’ve been organizing there changing sharply in his favor. In another chapter, we learn of how the Brotherhood blackmails a famous spy into investigating a potential enemy of Santo’s, with the scene spending a particularly long time detailing how this spy is in fact an illegal clone created hundreds of years ago whom the government of Earth is hunting down. In still another chapter, Brando receives a lengthy message from his brother explaining cheerfully that he has married the woman to whom Brando was originally betrothed.
The seemingly unrelated nature of these vignettes makes them difficult to follow, but this would be okay were they to eventually resolve into some sort of larger story line. Unfortunately they do not, and to make matters worse, the majority of The Blue-Spangled Blue’s more interesting plot threads simply vanish midway through the book when the story takes a sharp turn in both tone and subject.
Eventually, Santo sends the Brotherhood’s forces against Tenshi herself, with soldiers attacking the home in which she and Brando now live with their daughter, Tana. In an excessively brutal sequence, in which Tenshi and Tana flee through their house while being pursued by Brotherhood soldiers, Tenshi herself is ultimately killed, with Tana being shot soon afterwards. The chapter then ends with Brando returning home to find his wife and daughter lying dead on their living room.
From here the book skips forward in time some eight years, with Brando utterly devoting himself to the task of avenging Tenshi’s and Tana’s deaths in a way that not only feels clichéd, but also jarringly out of character. Introducing this new version of Brando at the moment when he tortures a captured member of the Brotherhood to death (thereby finally stumbling upon critical information that reveals to him that it was Santo who ordered that Tenshi and Tana be killed eight years prior), the book then spends its remaining hundred or so pages enthusiastically narrating how Brando murders every single one of the novel’s numerous antagonists, culminating with a scene in which Brando corners both Santo and Samanei in Jitsu’s capital.
And here, in a moment that undoes what was by far this novel’s most intriguing story element, Brando discovers that Samanei is not in fact an Oracle as Santo believes, but instead simply a criminal genius capable of hacking into brain-computer interfaces common to the novel’s world—thereby allowing her access to the massive amounts of information needed to pose as an Oracle. Realizing that Samanei is the true reason why his wife and daughter were murdered (and that Santo was merely being manipulated by this woman whom he had originally kidnapped as a teenager), Brando nevertheless still kills Santo, and then kidnaps Samanei so he can take her off Jitsu in a spaceship he has secretly had constructed beneath his home.
The story ends with Brando leaving Samanei stranded on an uninhabited planet, but not before extracting DNA from her body so that he can clone his wife and daughter—an act that seems to only exist in the novel so that the prediction from the prologue that Brando and Tenshi will survive the ravages of history can come true.
I think there are multiple reasons why this ending feels jarringly at odds with the prior story, but the main one has to do with Bowles’s portrayal of Samanei. Having been introduced as a tragic figure, the revelation that Samanei is actually the primary villain of this story comes across as forced and reductive. In finally revealing that in fact Samanei is not an Oracle as Santo believes, The Blue-Spangled Blue attempts to reconcile a lingering paradox regarding how Santo’s actions throughout the plot seem to conform to the will of the god whom both he and Tenshi worship. Regularly over the course of the story, Samanei channels the voices of numerous figures from Jitsu’s past when speaking to Santo, all of whom seem to have achieved the Quantum Enlightenment that both Santo and Tenshi (and later on Brando) pursue. Yet while it’s initially implied that Samanei truly is channeling these souls, and that they are working to help Santo pursue his morally abhorrent ambitions, the novel ultimately reveals at the last moment that this was all simply a hoax. As a result, the questions introduced by the novel’s setup, and sustained by its preceding narrative—about the religious motivations of the protagonist and antagonist, and the cosmology of this universe—are effectively dismissed.
Even more concerning, however, is what happens to Samanei in this ending. Bowles wisely avoids the harmful trope of attributing Samanei’s over-the-top villainy to her schizophrenia, but in its place he falls for the perhaps equally dangerous trope of saying that the constant abuse which Samanei has endured from Santo destroyed what little was left of her humanity. In the novel’s view, this renders her unworthy even of the reader’s sympathy. Essentially, we are told that Santo’s kidnapping of Samanei traumatized her so severely that she became obsessed with murdering her twin sister, with every single villainous act in the novel’s lengthy plot being ultimately attributed not to Santo, but Samanei manipulating things behind the scenes. In one especially telling moment, Brando uncovers a recording left for him by a high-ranking official in Jitsu’s government, with this message saying of Samanei:
“I think she’s capable of anything to cover her tracks. I don’t have much time, and no one will believe me if I tell them what I fear. But I can warn you, yes. Don’t trust her. Don’t pity her. And for the sake of us all, don’t let her leave this place. Disconnect her and lock her away. She’s evil and twisted inside, capable of destroying us all.”
This framing of Samanei as the true villain of The Blue-Spangled Blue does not merely come across as an overly convenient plot device. It also strikes a line through the thematic questions that arise throughout the story regarding the social consequences of religiously motivated convictions. Over the course of The Blue-Spangled Blue, Brando and Tenshi both work to reform Jitsu’s government, with Tenshi being motivated by a religious conviction that she must work for the benefit of everyone, regardless of belief. In contrast, Santo is a figure whose own motives are similarly religiously driven, yet far less altruistic—believing that he must isolate Jitsu from the rest of the universe at all cost so as to preserve Jitsu’s theocracy.
That the story ends with the revelation that Santo’s actions are actually just the result of a stereotypically evil antagonist who had tricked him is a fundamental flattening of the novel’s themes regarding religious conceptualizations of morality. The book settles instead on a brutal revenge narrative that is only tangentially related to the ideological differences that drove the preceding story, and whose resolution seems actively to erase the philosophical conflict which originally motivated the characters. Perhaps this ending was Bowles’s intent for this novel from the start, but for me as a reader, these later chapters still left me feeling that the far more interesting themes had gone ignored.
It’s worth noting that The Blue-Spangled Blue is simply the first novel in a duology, with the final book being due to be published next year. Given that the first edition of this novel was now written more than ten years ago, I feel the need to point out that it’s entirely possible that the issues I have with this story improve in subsequent installments. I’m unfamiliar with Bowles’s other work, but to be fair to his skills as a writer, the world that he has constructed in The Blue-Spangled Blue is legitimately fascinating for the ideas and themes it elicits. While I’m personally uninterested in following the story of Brando and Tenshi any further, perhaps there are other readers who will find more in Bowles’s later work than I did here.