Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Review: Floating Hotel by Grace Curtis

A delightfully atmospheric exploration of a world and a hotel through the eyes of the workers, linking together their daily experiences to allow us to see a greater whole.

In almost every forum I've seen it referred to, the blurb for Floating Hotel refers to The Grand Budapest Hotel. It's what drew me to reading it. And it is entirely accurate, from a purely vibes-based perspective. I don't know quite how, I don't know quite why, but while reading, I had the spiritual equivalent of that music that everyone used for a bit doing Wes Anderson skit tiktoks going round my soul on a neverending loop. It just had something of that plinky-plunky, moving-between-shots and dotting-about-but-nevertheless-coalescing-into-a-coherent-whole-by-the-end feeling that I associate with his films. It had atmosphere.

And this is the major strength I would say the whole book has - it does vibes and charm and that general creation of a consistent atmosphere really really well. 

Which it needs to, because this is a book that dots between different characters and plotlines quite a lot and quite quickly, and so it really needs to have something consistent underlying the whole thing to keep you hooked. Imagine if a particularly whimsical episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Adrian Tchaikovsky's City of Last Chances and Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series got together and had a strange, unholy yet kind of adorable spawn. That's what we're looking at here. It's the story of a... well a hotel... that's... uh... floating. Through space, specifically. Admittedly, I think hotel is a bit of a misnomer (though used throughout the book). It seems far more like a quaint, intergalactic cruise liner making stops at the various ports on its predetermined route, picking up passengers along the way, dropping some off, and being the backdrop for a number of... whatever the lower-key cousin of wacky hijinx are. Whimsical shenanigans, perhaps.

We follow the ship through this journey through the eyes and perspectives of various members of the crew, learning how they came to be on the ship, what their job is, what their current preoccupation is, their concerns, their interactions with other staff. For the major part of the story, the stakes are extremely low - who's been sending sonnets through the pneumatic message system? Will people like this month's shit film club where we watch a retro movie? Let's go try to get an ox flank from the planet, but oh no, it's out of stock! We cycle around through the staff, this way, steadily learning the ship and its rhythms and sense of self, while slowly beginning to see the edges of a deeper, darker plot lurking under the surface, that might be more important than just the day to day running of business, may even be more important than the financial wellbeing of the hotel. But we do so steadily, gently always, never pressuring events to move faster than the current perspective would focus on. There are just little hints peppered through the dish... until eventually you realise find the chilli pepper? Something like that.

As a concept, it's not totally unique (and I do think City of Last Chances is a crucial comp for the structure - if you struggle with how that is a story far more focussed on the city than the people within it, this may give you difficulties for very similar reasons), but it is still plenty unusual. By using so many perspectives, it forces a more oblique approach to the central plot, and gives the author a chance to really bed down a sense of a place, a group of people and their collective community together, focussing on that, on the physical details of the space, the little moments of daily interaction, rather than feeling the need to get a proper drive on towards action and resolution.

Having this space particularly helps in addressing, in a casual and off-hand way a thing I often find poorly handled in SFF - class. It's not a core focus by any means. Don't go in expecting full Marx or anything. But there is a much more competent undercurrent of class consciousness in this book than I tend to assume I'll see in books set in space, even when their characters occupy various points on spectra of wealth and privilege. This is a book that gets the concept of nouveau riche, that gets the shift that happens from what was once vogue into something that is less high-culture and more aspirational middle class, the genteel degeneration of luxury. And that's super interesting! It's a luxury space hotel that's been flying through the galaxy, hosting the wealthy for decades - of course its interaction with fashion, with class and with culture is going to change in that time! And I love that it gets addressed, however obliquely.

Likewise, that space, and that approach to character hopping introduces us to a lot of people, and works hard to make them memorable and distinctive immediately upon meeting. My particular favourite is a grumpy linguistics professor whose position teaching an elective, ungraded course has left her able to gently exploit her situation and do whatever the fuck she wants, more or less, who unfortunately is being pushed back into actually acting on her principles, however much it irks her. I loved her so much, the moment I met her. And there are plenty like her - they appear on the page feeling nearly fully formed, you spend a chapter or so with them, and you feel instantly acquainted. And then see them through someone else's eyes as you carry on hopping.

And in this, I think it actually has City of Last Chances beat, because it does feel rather more tethered to its people than that did - I struggled with CoLC because we had a perspective for a little while then seemingly abandoned it for something completely unconnected. The web of interactions and interlacings there took a long time to materialise (and was amazing once it arrived, don't get me wrong - it's an astonishingly good book), in a way that wasn't an issue here. It's a hotel with a small staff. Everyone is connected and interacting all the time, so it's very hard not to feel like those different perspectives all link up. They're literally talking to each other right now!

But... but. It's not perfect. While those characters are often instantly interesting and interestingly realised, they suffer somewhat in the long term. The structure does not lend itself well to providing character depth, and the lack of repeat perspectives only doubles down on that. You simply do not spend long enough with any one person to get as fully bedded into their headspace as you would in a one or two perspective story.

And then, because of that, because you're not so totally emotionally invested in their wants and needs, some of the emotional payoff come the end of the story suffers a little. It's a story of ups and downs, and the downs never quite hit me like they should have at the end, because I didn't get the time to fully connect with the stakes, and the people, enough to let them fully seep in. Don't get me wrong, there are some moments of great catharsis or excitment or sadness, but the successful ones are all in the short term story scope, told in the confines of one perspective and chapter, rather than the overarching plot that has been gradually built across the perspectives. Which is a real shame precisely because you have those single moments done well to compare it to. It just doesn't quite land that final punch, and that left me somewhat unsatisfied on closing the final (digital) page.

It also, unfortunately, does not always manage the plot reveal itself super well. As I say, there are hints peppered throughout, and gentle foreshadowing galore, but for myself, I found that I had predicted some of those shadows rather, well... fore. And not the "one chapter early" that is the perfect delight of a mystery novel - exactly the zone where you get to feel smug, but before the intelligence of the detective starts being called into question. Once you start spending pages and pages sitting on a certainty that you know what's coming, it starts to grate a little bit that the author hasn't trusted that you'll have figured it out yet.

And I get that that's hard - I cannot imagine how tricky it is to try to manage that pacing knowing your audience is going to be a full range of people from called-it-on-the-first-page to never-saw-it-coming-even-at-the-last - I do. But personally, I would always rather be surprised than patronised, and this definitely felt like it leaned a little bit too far the wrong way in that equation. Not aggressively, not didactically. I never felt like Curtis was spelling it out and elbowing me in the ribs in case I'd missed it. But we were just given that bit too long with a few too many clues and well... it seemed obvious, when we got to things actually being admitted and uncovered.

Which is something of a contrast to some of the wider world-building, once we stepped outside the confines of the ship and started connecting up with what the wider galaxy looks like. Much of this is done, in the early parts of the book, through little snippets of pre-chapter text, which I am personally inclined against, but which were actually done particularly well here. They always felt relevant, they were never too long, and they worked tonally for what they were trying to be. That part of the world-building? Grand. But when we get to the later stages of the story, and the outside world starts to encroach into the insularity and safety of the hotel, and subtext has to stop subbing... slightly less well-managed at that point. There are some questions that I feel never got answered, in a way that isn't "lingering mysterious what if" so much as "we only have so many pages to do this in, let's go go go" and that's... well that's always disappointing. Especially in a book that really didn't overstay its welcome in terms of length and totally could have handled a couple more chapters to make sure everything got tidied away nicely (emotionally, at least).

It's not that I wanted no ambiguity, I want to stress. There's some ambiguity, or some... unfinishedness to some of the storylines at the end that feels entirely deliberate and is entirely good. Where we leave the characters, where we leave the emotional journey of the hotel? Yes, that ambiguity absolutely brings home how those plotlines did and should go. But it's more... there are parts of the story that are set up with the expectation of answers. They get answers. But some of those answers feel rushed, incomplete or emotionally immatured, in a way that we could totally have avoided with just that little bit of extra character work with a few people near the end.

The story is, very deliberately, set at a remove from the rest of the world. The hotel is itself a little world. That's the whole point. But when external events are allowed to intrude, I do unfortunately think a little bit of resolution to some of the questions is in order.

But, for all those gripes, I do still think this is a good book. It's not a perfect book, sure. But it is intensely charming, consistently atmospheric, and the vibes are impeccable. Does it have a plot? Not always. Eventually. Sort of. Does that actually matter? Actually... no. Not really.

As someone for whom A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet did not work, Floating Hotel delivers the experience that so many people have told me they had with the Wayfarers books - a bunch of people thrown together in a space ship, sharing their lives, seen through their distinct perspectives and having low-ish stakes, slightly delightful escapades, with some more serious bits of emotional work and the odd drama thrown in for some texture. For me, Floating Hotel does a better job at connecting those disparate threads of story, and creating that sense of community and cohesion than Chambers' work did, as well as delivering more impactfully (at least in the short term) on character work. It has some rough edges I would have loved it to have sanded down, but at its heart, it was deeply enjoyable and I'm incredibly glad I read it.

I also respect it for doing something that little bit different (not totally maverick, but just that little bit of "ooh, what are you doing here???") from the norm, and that always gets a rating bump from me. 

Taking that into account, as well as all those rough edges, puts it into the trickiest bracket of scoring in my opinion - the seven out of ten. It's a 4/5 if you're doing star ratings. To an external viewer, that looks like an uncomplicatedly good rating, right? But 7 isn't uncomplicated. 7 is good... but. It's the last point of overall positivity before we start heading into "very mixed" or "meh" territory in your 6 and belows. 7 is messy.

7 is the best place for a book to be for a review, because it's where all the best discussion is. It's good. You're not angry at it or upset. It wasn't a wasted reading experience. But you have a lot of things to talk about, a lot of things to wonder if they could have been done that little bit differently, or what if they just...? What if it had only...? 10/10 can sometimes be dull, because you run out of ways to say "lads, this was good 'un". 7/10, existing as it does at the intersection of good and middling has all the scope for discussion, while retaining the sympathy and enthusiasm, to make for a thought provoking reviewing experience. So on a very meta-level, I rate this book's 7/10 a 10/10.

Dialling the nonsense back again slightly, I did enjoy it as a reading experience. I would absolutely recommend it, especially if you're someone who likes their books very vibes-forward. Come for that, come for the delightful cast, come for gentle pacing and delicious place descriptions. Yes, there are some issues, and they might niggle you, but if you like that tone, that atmosphere? Then they'll be a worthwhile price to pay for a really lovely reading experience. And, critically, it's a book that's trying to do A Thing. I would always prefer books that shoot for the moon and land among the stars over the ones that never tried at all. Especially when you're in a fancy Wes Anderson space hotel, so the cold vacuum of space is less of a concern.


The Math


- demon lovechild of a TNG episode, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and The City of Last Chances, all directed by Wes Anderson (complimentary)
- stunning visual descriptions
- immediate character connections

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Curtis, Grace, Floating Hotel, [Hodder & Stoughton, 2024]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroformtea.bsky.social