Icon Is a Near-Perfect Near-Future Political Thriller

iconIn Persona, Genevieve Valentine introduced the world of the International Assembly, a near-future quasi-UN in which glamorous “faces” for each region tackle international affairs in-between photo ops and jet-setting. In the followup, Icon, she leaves behind the kinetic pacing of the high-tension chase through the back streets of the world that drove the first book’s plot, shifting the focus to the complex organizational and social structures the Faces must navigate in order to serve their constituent populations. The intricate world-building and expanded scope translate into a sequel that is a slower burn, but no less addictive, with a richer story of political double-crosses, conspiracy, and murder among the glamorous elite, but retaining the prickly, fascinating characters that made the first book such a welcome surprise.

We pick up the action almost directly where Persona left off. Suyana Sapaki is still the Face of the United Amazon Rainforest Coalition, and still in talks with the shadowy eco-terrorist group known as Chordata. The nearly successful attempt on her life has done nothing but increase her profile in the International Assembly. Daniel, the freelance journalist who helped her survive the first book, has been assigned as her personal photographer; she’s chummy with Martine and Grace, two of the most prominent female Faces; and her team benefits from a favorable relationship contract with the American Face, Ethan. But as much as things are looking up, there are looming concerns: the person who hired the hit on Suyana is still out there. Chordata refuses to remain quiet. Li Zhao, he head of Daniel’s press network has plans of her own, and seems to harbor a grudge against the IA. Suyana will need all her resources if she hopes to keep the peace, and survive.

Transforming diplomacy into celebrity, Icon skewers our collective obsession with popular culture. Suyana is careful to brush her bullet scar with glitter so it sparkles in the studio lights, and her contracted relationship with Ethan turns into a marriage as artificial as a glossy ad campaign, complete with staged”couple” moments guaranteed to play well on camera. Of course, not all of the Faces are so beloved by the media: Grace, the representative for the United Kingdom, seems to always be at just the wrong angle in a photograph, no matter how carefully she moves or poses. Meanwhile, the mysteries pile up around shadowy press firm owner Li Zhao, who retains her mystique even as more of her backstory is revealed.

Even as her critique of our facile celebrity culture takes the spotlight, Valentine excels at intense political manipulation. Icon packs a dizzying number of plots and counter-plots, assassinations, and shifting loyalties into its slim page count, but it never feels confusing or overstuffed, and it always plays fair: the final chapters offer a few genuinely surprising reveals, but they’re carefully telegraphed in earlier exchanges. Valentine excels at subtext, conveying volumes in a single glance between two people or a subtle shift in movement, rather than reams of exposition. It’s an amazing effect,

Though it’s a strong follow-up to Persona, Icon stands well on its own, a biting commentary on politics and celebrity, a twisting plot snaked through with economical world-building. It ranks with the best political SF, and we sincerely hope there’s more to come.

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