Music Matters
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Icon' Keeps The Shutters Clicking And The Danger Growing

In Persona, Genevieve Valentine introduced us to a world in which diplomats are celebrities on the covers of glossy magazines, and in which paparazzi wage a guerilla war against the status quo by ruffling the smooth, sanctioned narratives of the International Assembly with candid shots obtained through illegal surveillance. Each nation has a Face, a single individual expected to both represent and contain that nation's politics, culture, and aspirations in the manner of a Miss Universe pageant; each Face is illicitly assigned a snap, a photographer with cybernetic enhancements that allow their handlers to turn everything the snap sees and hears into footage. Nations' fortunes can rise and fall with a Face's fashion decisions.

When I reviewed Persona last year, I said that it was a perfectly satisfying stand-alone novel — but I was so fascinated by the world of the International Assembly, and so mesmerized by Suyana Sapaki, the Face for the recently formed United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation, that I hoped hard for a sequel.

I'm delighted to find that Icon is everything I wanted from one.

Suyana, having survived assassination and entered into a (thoroughly negotiated, profoundly clause-ridden) relationship with Ethan, the Face of the United States, has risen in the estimation of the public and, marginally, within the ranks of the IA. No longer just a C-lister playing it safe in order to deflect attention from her secret support of a radical environmentalist group, Suyana is more aware than ever of her angles, surroundings, handlers — and Daniel Park, the paparazzi ("snap") who helped her escape her shooter one year ago. Part of an underground organization that assigns snaps to individual Faces to catch the candid shots the sanctioned media suppress, Daniel supports Suyana from the shadows, sharing information and warning her about her enemies. But as her relationship with the environmentalists sours, Suyana finds herself increasingly backed into a corner, aware of as many guns pointed at her as cameras.

In Persona, I found Daniel and his parallel-running plot paled in comparison to Suyana and hers; in Icon, Suyana is Daniel's entire world, and their actions weave together into a tight, intricate collaboration. Always aware of Daniel's position, gaze, proximity, Suyana's every movement and stillness is framing a shot for him, and with the shot, a narrative: she gives him a story and he tells it to the world. The tension between them is engrossing, their affinity for each other telepathic, and I was riveted by their dynamic, the fierce care and unspoken affection that carries them through dangerous, difficult lives.

In a world — ours — where women are constantly being looked at, measured, judged, pitted against each other, seeing them wield that scrutiny like a scalpel against their enemies made me want to stand up and sing.

It is every bit as silently thrilling as Persona, and often more so: Where Persona catapults you into a sustained threat level and keeps you guessing, Icon has more moving parts and a more ambitious end-game. But these moving parts occasionally grind against each other: sometimes the characters, playing complicated games with make-up, smiles, the tilt of a chin against the light, will read each other faster than you can read the page. The feeling of needing them to spell out what just happened between them can be frustrating, as if the text is constantly subtitling a film of inscrutable actions and reactions — but by and large I was more than happy to yield my working mind to Suyana and Daniel, and watch their drama unfold.

The supporting cast of Faces is also superb, and very satisfyingly full of women talking to each other, working together, even with the unfathomable weight of scrutiny bearing down on them. In a world — ours — where women are constantly being looked at, measured, judged, pitted against each other, seeing them wield that scrutiny like a scalpel against their enemies made me want to stand up and sing.

In Persona, Suyana survived a gunshot. In Icon, Suyana calls the shots, and every shutter-click drives a bullet through the heart of her world.

Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Amal El-Mohtar