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A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

August 10, 2022

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, by Becky Chambers, is a second short novel about her monk and robot pair, Dex and Mosscap, telling of their adventures after what happens in A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Like the first novel, it’s a quiet story about what it’s like to be human or robot in the future, when humanity has stopped building robots in favor of trying to take care of the natural world they have left after the expansions of an industrial age.

Dex is nonbinary, which has nothing to do with the adventures the character experiences but is often momentarily confusing because readers are guessing whether Dex is doing something alone or with Mosscap. For example, as the two are traveling, “they steered the bike in the direction the sign indicated, and Mosscap fell into step alongside.” I’m not arguing that the plural pronoun shouldn’t be used, but it fails to add anything except moments of confusion to this particular tale, at least so far. If the representation makes it worthwhile to other readers, fine; it’s a small quibble.

But small points and nice distinctions are part of the pleasure of this book. I enjoyed an exchange between the two characters after Mosscap declares that it “doesn’t need an object to facilitate that feeling.” Dex explains that things like “a shrine, or an idol, or a festival” are useful because “those things remind us to stop getting lost in everyday bullshit. We have to take a sec to tap into the bigger picture.” And then there’s a pause and Dex points out that “you are an object facilitating that feeling. The feeling’s coming from you, after all.”

Sometime the humans call the robot an object and use the pronoun “it” but usually they treat Mosscap as a person, which is an interesting thing to trace throughout a novel in which a robot “Awakening” has already happened.

The world Dex and Mosscap are traveling through isn’t a perfect one, but it is a world that’s moved in some directions that will seem utopian to readers today, like that people use a system of currency that “facilitates exchange through the community. Because…all exchange benefits the community as a whole.” Mosscap goes through a few examples, saying “the farmer feeds the musician, who brings music to the village….The technician who took a break to enjoy the music now has the energy to go fix the communications tower. The communications tower enables the meteorologist to deliver the weather report, which helps the farmer grow more apples.” Dex explains that “nobody should be barred from necessities or comforts just because they don’t have the right number next to their name.”

Another detail that will seem utopian to anyone who has an interest in ecology and the future of the planet is the description of structures in the little settlement of “Kat’s Landing,” where “there were windmills and whirligigs made of old-fashioned bicycle wheels, mosaics crafted from bottle caps and resin, sculptures decorated with splashes of forbidden materials sporting colors found nowhere in nature. It was a town built of trash, but its current incarnation transcended that unseemly origin.”

In a few places, they pass by towns where the people don’t want to meet Mosscap. As Dex explains, “some people went in kind of an extreme direction after the Transition. They think tech is a slippery slope that heads right back to the Factory Age, so they don’t use anything automated….they also are known to get prickly about people bringing mainstream tech into their space.” Mosscap thinks about this and then says it’s “like Elk,” because “Elk don’t understand robots, either. We confuse them, and that makes them afraid, and then they can get…well, disagreeable.”

It says right on the cover that the book is a “prayer” and Dex is a “monk,” so it’s probably not fair to object to some of the things in this world that are presented as utopian as the products or by-products of religion, but fair or not, I object to explanations like that “though we can—and should—get close to the gods, it’s impossible to understand them or the full nature of the universe, so we have to build a society that is best suited to our needs.” Why not just say that without the religious introduction to the topic?

Anyone who has spent time with a toddler will like the description of how awe-struck Mosscap is with each tree it sees in the course of its travels with Dex. Mosscap keeps “standing in the middle of the highway, neck craned with awe at the flowered branches that were exactly like the thousand other flowered branches they’d already passed by” and Dex thinks that “while the spice plum blossoms were indeed beautiful, they did not need to stop at every single fucking tree.”

And yet the title comes from a look at treetops, specifically, the way their crowns don’t quite touch: “every tree was lush and full, bursting with green life. Yet somehow, in the absence of contact, they knew exactly where to stop growing outward so that they might give their neighbors space to thrive.” Giving the characters room to explore the issues presented in this short novel gives them the power to charm readers, a power I’m necessarily discounting by writing a review, where the details are selected for you. Part of what the novel is saying might be that we each have to be naive viewers again if we want to re-envision our society.

Readers in their twenties—and I think this novel is primarily for them—will enjoy the description of Dex’s homecoming:
“How odd, then, to be able to return to a place that would always be anchored in your notion of the past. How could this place still be there, if the you that once lived there no longer existed?
Yet at the same time, in complete contradiction, seeing that said place had changed in your absence was nothing if not surreal. Dex felt this as they approached the road leading to their family’s farm, just as they felt every time they made the trip. The road was the same, but the fence had been mended. The field was the same, but the greyberry bushes had been cut down to the root. The farm was a place where Dex knew they would always be welcome but never in the same way as before they left; a place they knew intimately and no longer knew at all.”

On the other hand, as someone who is enjoying—by which I mean trying to get used to—the first week of retirement, I think this novel is also for me, as one of the messages Dex repeats to everyone is that “you don’t have to have a reason to be tired. You don’t have to earn rest or comfort. You’re allowed to just be.” And in this novel, Dex complicates that by exploring a feeling of responsibility, saying “I’m good at something that helps other people. I worked really hard to be able to do it, and I benefited from the labor and love of others while I did so. I’m able to do what I do because everybody else built a world in which I could do it.” I would say that it’s important to be good at more than one thing; that if you work at being able to do several things, at least one of them unrelated to how you make money, then you’re going to be less conflicted about this issue.

Have you read A Psalm for the Wild-Built? Will you read this second novel?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2022 7:03 am

    You’re retired?! Congratulations, Jeanne, though I wouldn’t have guessed that from your comments, always on the ball and to the point, never tiredly cynical (as I am wont to feel) but constructively critical when necessary…

    As for this title, it does sound thoughtful and imaginative if in need of some realistic editorial input.

    • August 10, 2022 7:39 am

      Wow, thank you! I’m not actually old enough to retire but I gave up my so-called “half-time” job when the college finally agreed to hire someone full-time to replace me. I’d already been working full-time and didn’t want to take on the 70-80 hours a week the new job would require.

  2. August 10, 2022 11:14 am

    I definitely want to read these! Just haven’t gotten around to it yet. They sound thought-provoking, yet peaceful, a combo I can get behind.

    • August 10, 2022 11:31 am

      Yes, a little thought-provoking and a lot peaceful.

  3. August 10, 2022 1:07 pm

    Welcome to retirement – where the grownups are. Sort of. You ARE old enough. Hugh Howey was thirtyish. I think he considers himself retired.

    Disabled people’s advocates – family, friends, allies – are always reminding us “you don’t have to have a reason to be tired. You don’t have to earn rest or comfort. You’re allowed to just be.”

    At the same time, too much of the world thinks we’re freeloaders, and some actively believe we fake being ill to ‘get attention.’ (They should TRY that attention – doesn’t work the way they think; chronic means everyone is tired of hearing about it.)

    Even retirement carries some of the taint: you’re not working, so why are you somehow taking from the hardworking young people stuck in jobs?

    And during the pandemic, ‘those old people have already lived their lives.’ While we are actively told WHILE working, that we should ‘save for retirement.’

    Think what you want, do it anyway, someone will always object – but being reminded of the truths is needed because the world likes to renege on expensive promises.

    Sounds a bit like what the characters are navigating, doesn’t it?

    Thank you for the thought-provoking review. When the writing is done – might be one to read.

    • August 12, 2022 10:00 am

      All good points. I’ve said for years that “working” shouldn’t just be about what you do for money, and that what a person “does” should not define them entirely. Now I have to put my money where my mouth is!

  4. August 10, 2022 2:04 pm

    I read this and enjoyed it. I didn’t have any trouble with “they” and quite like it because it makes my brain a little unsettled not being able to pin a gender onto to Dex, which is a good thing. I liked how excited Mosscap was to get a satchel and then have something to put in it. I don’t think you have to be in your twenties for that homecoming scene to resonate. I feel that way every time I go visit my family in California. My parents still live in the house I grew up in and it’s the same but absolutely not the same so it has this weird home/not home dislocation.

    It will probably take a little time to get used to retirement, but I’m sure you find all sorts of interesting ways to occupy yourself 🙂

    • August 12, 2022 10:02 am

      I’ll bet the unsettled feeling is what the author is going for, with not specifying a gender for Dex.
      Glad the homecoming scene resonated with you! I guess I thought about people in their twenties because my kids have said things like that about coming home to our house, where they grew up.
      I have all sorts of interesting things lined up–mostly writing and researching, plus one volunteer position. It still feels nebulous, though.

  5. August 11, 2022 11:53 am

    Congratulations on your retirement. Tomorrow is the first day back to work for the teachers at the school I just retired from. I’m counting that as my first day of official retirement. The summer has felt like a long break. Tomorrow I will be really retired.

    This books reminds me a YA novel I read a few years ago called Wild Robot. It’s about a robot who’s been shipwrecked on an island in the Pacific Northwest. He has to learn to survive and to interact with nature to do so. It’s a sweet little story.

    I wonder why the robot in this book is called “it”. Wouldn’t the robot be genderless? I think we’re in a period of transition with pronouns. “They” will either be replaced by something a little more clear grammatically or we’ll all learn to read the context clues to avoid confusion. In the mean time, we may have to do some extra work as we read.

    • August 12, 2022 10:04 am

      Good point–there will definitely be some schaudenfreude when I see others go back to classes.
      I read the Wild Robot book. This one is very different!
      And isn’t “it” the correct term for someone without gender?

  6. lemming permalink
    August 12, 2022 9:16 am

    Your comment about the non-binary character reminds me of Sarah Caudwell’s mysteries, which I reread over my vacation. Her protagonist’s gender is never revealed, and even their name is neutral. I know that she made that literary choice (not telling the reader) but it struck me how well the books hold up if I think of the sleuth as non-binary, too.

    • August 12, 2022 9:57 am

      I do love the way some novels never reveal gender. The one that comes to mind right now is A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World (and if you read my review, you’ll notice that I never use pronouns when referring to the characters).

  7. August 13, 2022 12:44 pm

    I read the first one and enjoyed it. A gentle, and uplifting read. I may wait for the paperback of this one. I’d like more Wayfarers universe type fiction from her. Loved those books.

    • August 14, 2022 10:20 pm

      I do like the Wayfarers universe books better, but these are very gentle, and that’s nice sometimes.

  8. August 14, 2022 9:50 pm

    I recently read Psalm for the Wild Built and found that it really helped me through a tough time. Another friend of mine said he felt the same way. Thanks for the review! I am looking forward to reading Prayer for the Crown Shy, as well

    • August 14, 2022 10:21 pm

      It’s great when a book can help you through a tough time. I hope you’ll like this one as much as the first one; I did.

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