Book Review: Cupid’s Arrow
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A woman aims to resurrect extinct species and locate a lost love in this exciting feminist sci-fi
Cupid’s Arrow: Book Two of the Shambhala Saga is narrated by Pavani, a Hopi woman from Earth who has boarded the ship Shambhala and now lives on a lunar colony called Arcadia. To avoid recreating a patriarchal system, the colony has been deliberately limited to people who identify as women. The moon environment is ecologically limited, but Pavani enjoys a fairly normal social life, including the opportunity to speak with her mother on Earth via holographic video call whenever she likes. The novel presents an attractive vision of a nonviolent, egalitarian society set 76 years in the future.
As this is the second book in a series, it doesn’t deeply review the past relationship that Pavani is grieving. As the story opens, her love, Calli, is one of over a dozen women who has just left Arcadia to start a new world. Pavani is unsure if Calli ever returned the intensity of her feelings, and she has no way of knowing if Calli is still alive. She begins writing love letters to Calli, hoping she will someday read them. Readers who want to know more about their love story may want to start with Book One, Callisto 2.0.
A military aggression threatens Arcadia’s utopia. A rival power arrives, attempting to invade and dominate them, and the women of Arcadia are determined to resist it nonviolently. Pavani’s understanding of the origins of the conflict is mostly indirect. She and the other women of Arcadia listen to the news, which unfortunately contains misinformation, and they share better information to comprehend the far-off sources of the threat. The broadcasts suspiciously claim that two of the women who left Arcadia now aim to destroy Earth. It gradually becomes clear that one of these women has a brother who is susceptible to corruption because he had an affair with a powerful judge, and he has generally evil intentions of spying on Shambhala, humiliating his sister, and seizing power.
The intergalactic politics are one possible draw of Cupid’s Arrow, but readers may also be intrigued by the mouse-breeding program led by a character named Naomi. Mice tolerate the low gravity on the moon. Naomi seems to think of them as pets or at least as adorable distractions. More seriously, she is motivated by the abstract scientific challenge of enabling female mice to reproduce without males. Pavani, too, is interested in this work, as she aspires to resurrect extinct species, specifically the rodent-like Sardinian pika.
The reader may feel a stronger emotional investment in the second half of the book where Pavani explores her romantic feelings. She recalls that she once dated a woman who had other lovers and that she felt no jealousy in that situation, but rather “compersion:” “joy for her partner’s happiness.” Now, she begins a sexual relationship with another woman on Arcadia.
Immediately following their first spontaneous tryst, Pavani tries to explain away their behavior as “a natural reaction to the trauma.” They decide that they nevertheless want to continue their affair. Pavani admits to her lover that she is still in love with Calli, and she intends to be equally honest with Calli (should she ever locate her) about her other sexual relationship.
Pavani’s capacity to feel love for multiple people proves useful when hiding from enemy AI. Another woman informs her: “If we are showing strong emotions, then the AI won’t be able to pick up our anxiety…But the emotions have to be real, Pavani, you’ll need to feel them in your body.” This daringly creative situation positions passionate love as a kind of superpower. Pavani is stronger and safer insofar as she is able, ready, and willing to let her desire overshadow her fear.
With the spreading news of the hostile occupation of the Arcadia moon colony, some men are sympathetic toward the women who live there. “Maybe for the first time they could see women as being on the same team, sharing a common enemy,” Pavani contemplates. She is also aware of a person who has a nonbinary gender identity, and she wonders what might happen if one of Arcadia’s women were to come out as nonbinary. “Now that the Foundation is well-established, with a strong culture of egalitarianism,” she argues, shouldn’t Arcadia be able to make space for other gender identities?
Pavani is simultaneously strong and sensitive, and she is clear with herself and others about what she wants. With Cupid’s Arrow, author Susan English further develops the inventive tale of this thought-provoking feminist moon colony. These characters are aware of politics, biology, and love. They have personal and communal reasons for traveling to the moon and beyond. This exciting novel is about war, but more profoundly, it is about desire and hope.
Genre: Science Fiction / Feminist / LGBTQ
Print Length: 311 pages
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