Inside 'House of Women' by Sophie Goldstein
Goldstein's follow-up to 2015's The Oven is a mysterious, slow-burning master study of suspense. Four women embark on a mission to educate the natives on the primitive world of Mopu, but instead discover more about their own desires, dreams and darkness.
House of Women's darkness masked as beauty begins in the books design, the heavy cover opening up to beautiful marbled red endpages. One more turn of the page and the marbled design returns as the exterior of a mysterious planet in the starry background, the first view at our protagonists in the foreground (pictured above). The crew of the exploratory pod descends to the planet's surface, a flora and fauna rich planet known as Mopu. Goldstein's linework transitions seamlessly between technological and natural settings, allowing the core characters strong silhouettes to shine and make them easily identifiable. The natural environment of Mopu has a life all it's own. Plants and animals simultaneously blend in and stand out; Mope is clearly a place of hidden and mysterious beauty where looks can be deceiving.
Sarai, Kizzy, Rhivka and Aphra gain their bearings as they trek to their new home, first encountering familiarizing themselves with their new environment with a reserved and nervous curiosity. The characters defy the trope of being easily identified by their varied appearances with quick introductions to their individuality and personality. The youngest, Sarai, is cunning with a naivety and curiousness. Short and stout Kizzy is affectionate and optimistic. Aphra is stoic and conservative. Rhivka is harder to read - analytical and mysterious. When the group runs into fellow outsider Jael Dean, a contractor with a different company who has been on the planet for seven years, more of Rhivka's colors begin to show; a flirtyness and sensuousness far outside the rest of the group's professionalism.
Dean is like his transplant home - beatufiul, safe and welcoming with a hint of mystery and motive. None of his words and actions convey any ill will but the crew's mixed perception of his antics and his off-putting appearance creative questions. After a mixed first impression, Jael puts them on course to their accommodations. Page nine and ten's beautiful spread and design of the journey and arrival to their dilapidated mysterious palace raise many questions about Mopu's history.
The book's beautiful design choices to not stop there, with segments of traditionally paneled pages intermixed with dark, minimal illustrations to convey dim lighting in a cinematic style. The group's primary goal is to establish contact with and study the natives of Mopu, with their first interactions showcasing the inquisitive and highly intelligent nature of the furry, four-eyed humanoids. As the group settle into their duties, Sarai and Rhivka's competitive sparring over Dean's attention shows the bright and dark sides of both characters. The two-sided love triangle that develops (with a barely present Dean) drives both far beyond their comfort zones. As conflict builds between the group, the group's work proves fruitful as the natives become more and more receptive to the teachings and behaviors taught in their classes.
Sarai awakes in the night from sensuous dreams about Jael Dean, while Rhivka isolates herself and her scientific work deep in the bowels of the palace. Taking some of the natives on an outdoor stroll, the most advancement native known as Zaza undergoes a reaction to something in the wilderness. Zaza falls ill, to the horror of all of the crew. The sequence beginning with Zaza's illness begins shifting House of Women from slow-burning suspense to full science fiction horror. It's hard to avoid quickly turning through the pages as the dimly lit and cinematic action sequences shift supremely effectively between suspense and violence.
The book's open-ended conclusion is akin to many science fiction classics, leaving you satisfied and unable to resist writing additional stories in your head. Goldstein shows a master ability to craft worlds, build not only loving but confrontational character relationships and use art and design to transition seamlessly between moods and storylines. House of Women is a fully enveloping experience that stands alongside classic and contemporary high-concept science fiction novels and comics, with each new viewing bringing more intricacies to light.