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Picturing a World

Half Life of Valery K

My favorite book dedication is Rudyard Kiplings for Plain Tales from the Hills: "To the wittiest woman in India." Now it has a close runner-up, Natasha Pulley's in The Half Life of Valery K: "For Claire, Larry, and Jacob, who put up with me telling them pointless facts about nuclear physics for the whole of lockdown." The rest of the novel is terrific, too—I only wish it weren't frighteningly apt at a time when jitters about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine are all too real.

Be that as it may, we can all hope the current crisis passes safely and the book has a very long half life indeed. To say that it is light-hearted would be untrue; yet it is funny in places and warmed by the author's love for her characters. It has the compulsive narrative drive of genre fiction coupled to a willingness to allow those characters to be flawed and for moral questions to be debated. It also has an assured way of making "pointless facts about nuclear physics" both understandable and far from pointless.
And then there is Albert, the pet octopus who changes television channels with a remote control. He is in part a nod to all of us who love Katsu in Pulley's Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, but his presence is also justified by a key plot element in the dénouement.
I found Pulley's last novel, The Kingdoms, more violent than I care for even while I admired its strengths. I admit I wondered whether this one would be depressing. Nope. I read it in just a few sittings and look forward to rereading it.

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