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Literature / The Book of Joan

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"What if, for once in history, a woman's story could be untethered from what we need it to be in order to feel better about ourselves?"

The Book of Joan is a poetic, philosophical dystopian novel by acclaimed author Lidia Yuknavitch, published in 2017. It was a National Bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book of the year.

In the near future, the Earth is a barren battleground, ravaged by global warfare, and what is left of humanity has fled to CIEL, an orbiting satellite controlled by the totalitarian leader Jean de Men. Life among the stars has not proved to be the heavenly ascension that was promised, however, and isolated from the Earth's energy, evolution has inverted itself on humanity, who have become colorless, sexless, nearly lifeless shells, inscribing scar-pattern stories onto their skin.

But years ago, before the ascension, there was a girl. This girl became a warrior, and the warrior became a woman, and the woman became the final beacon of hope to a desperate resistance, and her name was Joan. Joan of Dirt, as the enemy called her. She was captured, of course, branded an eco-terrorist and publicly executed by the arcane method of burning at the stake, and with her, it was thought, died her story. But now Christine, a scholar and dissident artist nearing her fiftieth birthday—the limit of life for CIELers—has a song stuck in her head. And that song is only the beginning.


The Book of Joan transforms the dystopia genre, reimagining the Joan of Arc story and the story of life everywhere in a paradigm undefined by masculine-dominated narratives. It asks, what if we are not creatures of light and air, driven ever upwards by our manifest destinies? What if, instead, we are matter—by and of the Earth? And what happens when that connection is restored to us?

WARNING: This work contains several Walking Spoilers that spoiler tags are unlikely to save you from.

These Tropes Are Star-Stuff:

  • Adam and Eve Plot: Deconstructed. Joan eventually realizes she can use her body not only for destruction, but for creation, sacrificing herself to give rise to a new generation on Earth.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Trinculo, Christine's husband, often calls her "Christ."
  • Affectionate Parody: Trinculo writes Christine a modernized and characteristically obscene take on the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet. Christine laughs at how terrible it is, but it's actually something of a masterwork.
  • Allegory: The subplot involving Jean de Men's desire to use Joan as a Baby Factory can easily be read as a pro-choice argument.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Nyx, Christine's first disciple, has No Biological Sex like all residents of CIEL. Christine assumes they are a young woman, but Joan treats them as gender-neutral.
  • Appropriated Appellation: Joan adopts the enemy's derogatory name for her, "Joan of Dirt," since she is of the dirt, as all humanity is.
  • Baby Factory: This is how Jean de Men sees women—especially Joan, who, unlike the rest of humanity, has not lost her reproductive capabilities.
  • Big Bad: Jean de Men, the populist artist-turned-dictator who advocated ascension into CIEL and now rules it with an inkstained fist.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Joan arrives on CIEL in a blaze of energy in the middle of the battle between Christine's and Jean de Men's forces.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: Somewhat deconstructed, in that it's deliberately not played in the stereotypical Hollywood sense (it incorporates a far broader range of feeling), but Joan and Leone do get one after escaping from CIEL.
  • A Birthday, Not a Break: Christine's resistance's attack on Jean de Men is scheduled for her fiftieth birthday—her last day of life. It goes unmentioned until Trinculo brings it up, as they and all of CIEL are hurtling towards the sun.
    Trinculo: Happy birthday, you moon-breasted star song.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Most of the cast is dead, with CIEL incinerated and most of humanity along with it, but Joan has given her body to rejuvinate the Earth, and Jean de Men has been defeated.
  • Body Horror: Since physicality and the human body are possibly the book's Central Theme, this abounds.
    • The layers of scar tissue built up from repeated and overlapping skin grafts on the wealthier CIEL residents produces grotesque deformations resembling anything from headtails to long, imperial sleeves.
    • The sexless, colorless devolved state of the humans on CIEL itself.
    • Jean de Men's fertility experiments, which have involved the creation of artificial genitalia, among other monstrosities.
    • Joan fully remembers the sensation of being burned alive.
    • In the climactic scene, Jean de Men pulls out Leone's reproductive tract and eats it.
  • Burn the Witch!: As part of the Jeanne d'Archétype story, Joan was burned at the stake on live television. It turns out she was actually rescued from the pyre, though she sustained horrible burns on her skin, which is scarred to this day.
  • Central Theme: Devolution, matter and energy, love, gender, and the cycle of creation and destruction.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The spider Christine notices in the first chapter returns to play a vital role in communication between Christine and Trinculo.
  • Childless Dystopia: CIEL. Since sex characteristics evaporated almost two decades ago, no one has been able to conceive a child.
  • Children Are Innocent: Played with. The children of Earth have born the worst of the warfare—many being conscripted and used as cannon fodder—and are still harshly exploited by CIEL's enforcers.
  • Child Soldiers: Children, including Joan and Leone, were used as foot soldiers in the war.
  • Covered with Scars:
    • On CIEL, the dominant form of literature is scarification—burning patterns and pictographs onto one's skin to tell stories. As a result, most residents of CIEL are covered in scar tissue—some areas burned over so many times they have grown into headtails or other grotesque shapes.
    • Joan is covered in burn scars from her attempted execution.
  • The Cynic: Both Christine and Joan, downplayed. They don't believe that humanity is inherently evil, but they do believe it to be beyond saving.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Joan's loss to Jean de Men and subsequent attempted execution cost her her faith in humanity.
  • Defiant to the End: Trinculo continues admonishing and Volleying Insults at Jean de Men, even after he has been flayed alive.
  • Dystopia: CIEL, the False Utopia where only the rich could afford to retreat from the dying world below, ruled by an autocrat and strictly forbidding of unorthodox expression.
  • Earth That Used to Be Better: Decades of warfare and a vaguely defined eco-apocalypse have left the planet barren and lifeless, save for its deepest caves.
  • Emotionless Girl: Leone is a deconstruction. She is an extreme stoic, but Joan comes to realize that the two could easily had a deeper, more conversational relationship with her if Leone had not been afraid of her.
  • Everyone Is Bi: The disappearance of sex and gender characteristics has muddied the line of sexual attraction for everyone, and Christine, Trinculo, and Joan all show attraction to both men and women.
  • Every Scar Has a Story: Literally. Scarification is the main form of literature on CIEL, and master burn artists like Christine are novelists.
  • False Utopia: Most residents of CIEL don't realize they are in a Totalitarian Utilitarian autocracy where horrors are perpetrated under their noses, engrossed as they are in shallow comforts and inane fantasies.
  • Finger in the Mail: Played with. Joan sends her pinky finger, along with a lock of her hair, to the colony she learns of on Earth as proof of her identity.
  • First-Person Perspective: For the first half of the book Christine's parts are first-person and Joan's are third-person. Halfway through, it switches.
  • Flaying Alive: This is done to Trinculo as punishment for his repeated infractions. He somehow stays alive through and after the procedure, until the end of the book.
  • Free-Love Future: Deconstructed. CIEL pretends to offer this, but Jean de Men's grafts are decidedly heteronormative, and since sex characteristics are a thing of the past, all anyone can do is fantasize.
  • Genre Deconstruction: Of Science Fiction and Dystopia. It hits most of the same points, but almost always from an entirely new angle.
  • Great Offscreen War: Earth has been ravaged by catastrophic global warfare, which Joan and Leone both fought in as Child Soldiers.
  • Green Aesop: Humanity's ruthless exploitation of the Earth and the environment—hijacking biological systems to further its own designs—has led to its downfall.
  • Guy on Guy Is Hot: When pretending to masturbate for the cameras in her cell, Christine imagines Trinculo with another man. In great detail.
  • Happily Married: Christine and Trinculo, though they are frustrated by their inability to have sex.
  • Hurl It into the Sun: In the end, Christine sets CIEL on a course that will send it and all the dregs of humanity it contains into the sun.
  • I Call It "Vera": Leone calls her special boot-knife "Little Bee."
  • Insult of Endearment: Trinculo loves Shakespearean-sounding insults, which he volleys at Jean de Men in defiance but uses on Christine with affection.
  • In the Future, Humans Will Be One Race: On CIEL, human skin has lost its pigment, and everyone is literally white—almost translucent. Subverted by Joan and Leone, who have retained their French and Korean heritage, respectively.
  • Jeanne d'Archétype: In this version, Joan was a girl living in the French countryside, who, at ten years old, touched a tree and found her skull suddenly filled with a euphonious, rippling song manifesting in a blue light just above her temple. It was the song of the Earth, of nature, and after that Joan found that she could communicate with and control matter in a way that gave her powers that were not superhuman—but deeply and profoundly human. When the global wars began, she was conscripted as a child soldier, where she quickly rose to prominence due to her extraordinary abilities. She eventually became a rebel leader, seeking to end the wars and prevent the ascension to CIEL. She was eventually captured and burned at the stake on public television—any public display of sympathy toward her strictly outlawed. Her memory inspires Christine and her band of resistance fighters on CIEL, who plan to go out in a blaze of glory by suddenly attacking the complacent crowd—including Jean de Men—during a reenactment of Joan's story.
    • Starting with Part 2, this archetype is deconstructed. It turns out that Joan escaped her execution and is still alive, Walking the Earth with her companion Leone and sabotaging CIEL supply lines where she can. But she also was not the force for unambiguous good she is believed to have been: her capture was preceded by a failed attempt at global genocide—seemingly what reduced the Earth to its current nearly lifeless condition—to wipe out human life and allow the planet to start anew, which she believed was why she had been given her powers.
  • Kill Sat: CIEL can function as one, zapping those on the ground with bolts of energy.
  • La Résistance: Joan became a rebel leader, fighting against Jean de Men.
  • Leitmotif: In-universe. The song of the universe Joan hears constantly, which Christine and Joan's other followers learn to sing. In the novel's first chapter, it gets stuck in Christine's head, foreshadowing Joan's return.
  • Lit Fic: It's a Sci-Fi Dystopian thriller, yes, but it's also an introspective, obsessively linguistic Philosophical Novel.
  • Loveable Sex Maniac: Trinculo is bawdy and blasphemous and obsessed with the fleshy pleasures, but in a meditation on the importance of the physical, this hardly comes across as a bad thing. The first time we meet him, he has just designed a ridiculous belt covered with metal phalluses in imitation of the genitalia he has lost.
  • Mandatory Motherhood: Joan is the last woman alive who has not lost her sex characteristics and reproductive capabilities. Jean de Men intends to kidnap her and use her as a Baby Factory.
  • Meaningful Name:
  • Medical Rape and Impregnate: Jean de Men has attempted this on numerous women in an attempt to undermine the Sterility Plague, even growing false uteruses and implanting them into people. It hasn't worked.
  • Messianic Archetype: Joan is a deconstruction, though many of her followers believed her to be this.
  • Mistaken Identity: Played for Drama. Jean de Men kidnaps Leone, initially believing her to be Joan herself.
  • Morality Chain: Leone to Joan, especially after Joan's failed genocide, when Leone becomes the only human Joan still cares for.
    Leone became Joan's defenition of love.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Christine is a literary critic and author.
  • Moustache de Plume: Jean de Men has been masquerading as a man for decades, perhaps so that his works of "literature" would be taken more seriously.
  • Mutants: Some members of the youngest generation on CIEL, including Nyx, have developed vaguely defined superhuman powers like walking through walls. Nyx is also able to teleport by harnessing the Earth's energetic frequencies.
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: It's not until after Leone is captured by Jean de Men that Joan realizes she loves her.
  • No Biological Sex: All humans except Joan have devolved to this point.
  • Number Two: Leone has always been Joan's second in command. They've been friends since they were children.
  • Organic Technology: Before the war, humanity learned to harness biological systems and use them to create new structures, hijacking evolution and merging technology and nature—in a move that turned out to be disastrous. Many pieces of organic tech come into play in the story, including the olms which are used to convert energy and the spider which is used to transfer information.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Joan and Leone—until Leone is captured, and Joan realizes they were (or could have been) so much more than that.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: Played with. No children have been born on CIEL for two decades, so Jean de Men has begun resorting to twisted reproductive experiments to try to produce one. When he learns that Joan is alive, he plots to kidnap her and use her body to propagate the species.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: Jeanne d'Archétype IN SPACE!
  • Relationship Upgrade: Joan and Leone's Big Damn Kiss.
  • Romance Novel: Jean de Men's renowned skin grafts are ultimately this, providing a false sense of love and intimacy that is in fact as isolating as the internalized misogyny they are born from.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Much of the story functions on this logic as it overlaps with Rule of Cool. See Joan's brother showing up at the cave.
  • Second Coming: Played with. Joan is not dead as she is purported to be, but she has no desire to take up the mantle again and destroy CIEL—until Leone is captured by Jean de Men.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Both Joan and Leone, after the horrors they witnessed as child soldiers in the war.
  • Shout-Out: The book is filled with references, both explicit and in undertones, to Classical Mythology, The Bible, and Shakespeare.
  • Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters: Definitely more focused on the characters and the concepts they embody than on the plot. Not much actually happens.
  • Space Station: CIEL, a satellite orbiting Earth and connected to it by supply lines, where the remains of humanity live their stunted lives.
  • Sterility Plague: Humans have devolved and no longer possess the reproductive systems necessary to produce children.
  • The Stoic: Joan admires Leone for her extreme stoicism.
  • Teleportation: Nyx teaches Joan how to teleport by harnessing the Earth's energetic frequencies and concentrating.
  • True Companions: Joan and Leone, who have spent years Walking the Earth together and are fiercely protective of each other to the last breath.
  • Unsettling Gender-Reveal: Exaggerated.
    • Nyx undoes their skirt for Joan, revealing the hideous attempts at genital recreation wrought there by Jean de Men. This serves as the turning point for Joan in convincing her to rejoin the fight.
    • In the climactic scene, Jean de Men's robe is torn away, revealing that he has actually been a woman all along.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Jean de Men believes a clean, heavenly existence among the stars is the ultimate apotheosis of humanity . . . and is willing to use propaganda, torture, and global genocide to achieve that goal.
  • Walking Spoiler: Joan, who we don't learn is still alive until the end of Part 1.
  • Walking the Earth: Joan and Leone have spent the decades after the ascension traveling the ravaged Earth, moving between the caves that house the last remaining life on the planet.
  • We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: To conserve resources, CIEL residents are executed on their 50th birthdays.