At the start of Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, by Vylar Kaftan, all that Bee knows is that she and Chela are telepaths, guilty of a terrible crime. Bee lost her memories when they put a chip in her neck to suppress her powers, but that’s okay – Chela is strong and fearless and knows how to survive in the dark, wet caves of the prison planet Colel-Cab. Life there is terrible, but stable, until Bee senses another telepath, something Chela assures her is impossible. Everything begins to change when Bee reaches out to that presence.
Bee and Chela’s relationship defines the first half of the book. You never doubt that Bee adores Chela, and Chela takes good care of Bee, leading her through the endless caves. However, her desire to keep her lover safe causes her to dismiss Bee’s concerns and desires on more than one occasion. Lest you think that I am talking about a platonic love, let me reassure you that their relationship is both romantic and sexual, and the narrative camera does not fade to black for the juicy bits (in other words: yes, there is a sex scene).
Bee’s internal experience revolves around pain and exhaustion. On Colel-Cab, every time she tries to reach out to the other telepath, she passes out from the agony. And journeying in cold, wet caves, fighting bugs for supplies, leaves her physically weak and unable to think clearly. It mirrors the reality of living with chronic pain, and of the brain fog that goes along with many chronic health problems, both physical and mental. It’s rare to see this all too common experience reflected in genre writing, and I appreciated Kaftan’s deft handling.
This is a much more internally focused story than we typically see in genre writing. Usually, we get action-oriented characters who battle external foes. Here, the main character is somewhat passive, at least on the outside. While there are external threats, the bulk of the tension in the story comes from Bee’s struggle against pain, fatigue, self-doubt, and despair. While this might be a turn-off for some people, I found this book nearly impossible to put down. I rarely read anything longer than a short story in one sitting, but I swallowed this novella in one gulp.
Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water is an absolute delight for anyone who likes an introspective first-person narrator. Bee’s voice – her internal experiences, her fears, her assumptions – forms the beating heart of the story. Yes, the plot is great. Yes, there’s a twist that I won’t spoil. But Bee’s attempts to deal with pain and uncertainty? That’s what makes me want to shout about this book from the rooftops. All in all, this is a fantastic find for anyone who is intrigued by a character-driven story that takes a close look at trauma and chronic pain within the framework of science fiction.