Liz Williams' sophomore novel is an impressive bit of storytelling that shows considerable growth. While I found The Ghost Sister a complete strikeout, with Empire of Bones Williams knocks it out of the park. Everything in this novel revels in exoticism, and its central conceit that first contact with an alien species might well occur in a culture that is every bit as alien to self-absorbed western superpowers is only one example of its inspired satire. In all, it's a lush story that shows Williams is well on the way to a healthy career in SF, with only a few kinks in her craft (yes, pacing can still be a problem) left to iron out.
The plot, an expansion of an Interzone short story called "The Unthinkables," can be a chore to follow, but it's well worth the effort. The premise is that life on Earth is the result of some genetic engineering on the part of aliens who dwell on the distant world of Khaikurriyë; their culture is rigidly separated into castes, and different castes seek to improve their standing in the "Core" by experiments that involve genetically seeding worlds. If a colony world proves successful, which can be determined at the moment when one of the lifeforms on said world develops into a Receiver capable of hearing alien communications, that world is incorporated into the Core and its sponsoring caste rises in prestige accordingly.
The Receiver in this case is a young woman in India named Jaya Nihalani. In Williams' near-future milieu, India has reverted politically back to its very own caste system, and Jaya, whose communications with the alien signals have been interpreted by nearly everyone as divine, has become a revolutionary heroine. A vicious, and, we learn, deliberately engineered virus that has attacked Jaya's caste has done nothing to stamp out the fervor of her followers.
The reverence only increases when the aliens themselves actually come to visit, and swoop Jaya onto their orbiting vessel, curing her into the bargain. Jaya meets Sirru, a member of the struggling desqusai caste responsible for seeding Earth, and Ir Yth, a being of a higher khaith caste who clearly looks down upon Sirru and Earth itself. We learn that there is a bitter rivalry between the desqusai and the khaith, and Sirru is deeply concerned about the success of Earth, as another planet his caste was responsible for recently suffered disaster. And Sirru begins to suspect the khaith are deliberately trying to machinate the failure of desqusai worlds. Jaya, in the meantime, remains unsure of the aliens' motives. Are they here to help or harm? Befriend or conquer?
This all works so well in the novel because Williams does not shove the metaphorical relationship between the human and alien cultures in your face; indeed, there's often a great deal of wit at work whenever she draws parallels between politics on Earth and on Khaikurriyë. But though Williams' story occasionally slows down as she lays out her plot's intracacies, it is far more interesting this time than it was in The Ghost Sister, despite that novel's similar theme (in which people made contact with a lost and drastically changed colony). Here we get characters we can care about deeply. The book's anchor is Jaya, who is utterly believable throughout, considering how easy it would be unwittingly to strip a character who has so many archetypal qualities (revolutionary, practically messianic heroine) of anything like recognizable humanity.
Williams' satirical skills are firing on all five cylinders. She more than adequately addresses the political fallout, from all sides, that would engulf the phenomenon of alien first contact. Particularly amusing is her depiction of the West's self-important indignation that the aliens didn't land "on the White House lawn." But Indian culture, both popular and religious, is depicted both satirically and respectfully, and without the condescension one might initially fear coming from a western writer. (Williams has travelled extensively in Asia and her respect for foreign cultures is very much in evidence.) The aliens take note of the fact that, as the de facto creators of human life, they fit the job description of gods (revealed as a uniquely human concept) and yet they are consistently baffled by how very different life on Earth is from that back home. Even the buildings on Khaikurriyë are organic and alive, and Sirru spends a ridiculous amount of time trying to talk to the buldings in Jaya's compound before realizing they're just dead brick. In another scene revealing a wit not often seen in SF, Williams has the alien Ir Yth mistake a Bollywood actress portraying Jaya in a trashy movie as Jaya's "second body" (something the aliens commonly have), and tries to enlist her help in his treacherous schemes. And there are subplots, too: one involves Sirru's paramour back on Khaikurriyë who realizes she's being manipulated by one of his enemies. And I haven't even mentioned the human/alien sex scene yet!
But the book's smartest touch is this: Williams' aliens work because she has impressively avoided falling into the cliché of either idealizing or demonizing them but the novel's human characters do exactly that!
Yes, it's true that Empire of Bones is probably a little too dense at times. Though chapters are generally short and sweet, now and then it seems as if Williams is taking longer than she should to get to the point. But though it's a much more demanding reading experience than most books of its length (an average 320-odd pages), it's never boring and shows enormous sophistication in plot and character development on Williams' part. If her novels continue on this trajectory, could her first Hugo or Nebula be far behind?