Suyana Sapaki is in trouble. As the Face of the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation in the International Assembly, her job is to serve as the country’s public face of diplomatic relations and policy-making. In reality, this means navigating the dual world of stardom and politics, where a Face’s celebrity status is the only way by which they have any ability to have an effect on political decisions. (Imagine the Miss Universe pageant crossed with the United Nations.) Unlike the Faces of the Big Nine—the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, etc.— Suyana is a solid C-lister with few allies and even fewer friends. She was briefly attention-worthy after a terrorist incident occurred in her home country, but that was three years ago. She’s about to meet Ethan Chambers, the United State’s Face, where they’ll sign an agreement to enter a public relationship, when she becomes the target of an unknown assassin.
Daniel, a disgraced paparazzo and newly minted “snap,” (a member of the free press), is banking upon Suyana Sapaki as his big break. He’s hiding with a stolen camera outside the hotel where Suyana is scheduled to meet Ethan when he witnesses her being shot by an unknown assailant just outside the building. In a split-second decision, Daniel throws in his lot with Suyana’s to rescue her and keep his story safe. What happen next is a labyrinthine thriller as Suyana delves deep into her underground connections and navigates international politics to figure out who tried to kill her and how to stay alive in the meantime.
Genevieve Valentine has a particularly brisk, bare-bones way of writing characters and plot, which lends itself particularly well to writing a thriller. Readers are only given as much information as they need to know about IA politics, Suyana’s history, and Daniel’s experience as a photographer surveying the world as a former celebrity attaché and newly-turned free agent, and all these moving pieces fit together in what’s a noticeably short book. Ana from Things Mean A Lot wrote that Genevieve Valentine’s novels excel at examining “resistance within very constrained systems,” and I agree. I’d like to elaborate on that and say that Valentine specifically excels at writing female characters who, by necessity, must control and manage each and every action and emotion, who are brimming underneath with anger, hurt, and the desire to change their circumstances, but must be careful and considerate of what they can accomplish in their current circumstances lest they slip and lose the limited freedom and mobility they fought for.
In a story about the international political arena, it’s noteworthy that Suyana is a woman of color representing a confederation of nations historically exploited by more powerful Western nations, such as the United States. As the Face of the UARC, Suyana has to toe the line and make nice with the Faces of other countries who are doing their best to run roughshod over the UARC and its citizens. Her job is to be the embodiment of the UARC’s government, but it isn’t a role in which she is able to honestly or accurately represent her nation. (In photo shoots and public appearances, Suyana appears in beaded, embroidered shawls and dresses that supposedly give her an “authentic” or “Native heritage” look, none of which actually represent any particular people or groups of people from the UARC.) Control, calculated awareness, and precision are Suyana’s weapons, and she utilizes them constantly. Her existence is a constant game of lies and subterfuge— as a diplomat, she isn’t permitted to express her anger when she has so much to be angry about. Within her carefully monitored, puppet-like role, Suyana flies under the radar to make her own alliances with different players while holding her own amongst the other Faces and handlers of the IA.
All of these things I just wrote about make this book a great thriller. Unfortunately, these things also made this particular book less of an enjoyable read for me. The things I was the most interested in learning more about—international politics, the origin of the IA, the identities of each of the Faces and their agendas—were largely kept in the background. The focuses of the book are the action and the conspiracies, and not the world-building, but I was less interested in the former than the latter. A lot of this had to do with feeling like I was being told the subtext of Suyana and Daniel’s every movement and conversation. Since everyone is lying or partially lying or being evasive, you have the dialogue, and then the hidden meaning behind the dialogue (voiced aloud in the narrative), in addition to the Suyana and Daniel’s introspection regarding what moves certain characters would make, when, and why. I had to take for granted that Suyana and Daniel’s interpretations of those hidden meanings were correct because I am not that savvy when it comes to diplomacy and subterfuge (real-life or fictional) to be able to say otherwise. And that was frustrating, that I felt like I had to depend on the author telling me what was going on rather than being able to understand everything myself.
I was also frustrated that, while I appreciated what Suyana and her character meant in the larger scheme of the story, I wasn’t especially invested in her escaped assassination attempt and her following moves to regain control of her political seat. As I wrote earlier, world-building took a backseat to plot and pacing because this is a thriller. But because it wasn’t very present, I found it difficult to invest in the stakes surrounding the shooting. I’m starting to think I would have been more forgiving of the things I wasn’t keen on if Persona had been a novella. Given the story is about international politics, this book feels like a chapter or a section of a larger story. Persona ends with Suyana occupying a place with an enormous amount of potential to instigate a lot of change and attain more power than she previously had. And that’s a story I would have been more interested in than just the story of the shooting and subsequent unravelling of who was behind it and why.
What it boils down to is that Persona is an excellently-written thriller and demonstrates Genevieve Valentine’s mastery at writing precise and incisive stories, and it is unfortunately not for me. To be fair, I had a similar “appreciated more than enjoyed” reaction towards Genevieve Valentine’s first novel Mechanique. On the other hand, I don’t have the words to describe how much I loved her second novel The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. Anyone who’s interested in near-future political thrillers should definitely give this one a try though.