Meagan Kimberly reviews The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

Jessie Archer is an agent of Athena, a secret women’s organization that does the government’s dirty work of bringing down bad guys without the red tape. But even Athena has its rules, and Jessie is a loose cannon. When she’s fired from the only work she’s ever known, Jessie takes matters into her own hands and goes on a mission to bring down Gregory Pavlic, a Serbian politician known for human trafficking. Along the way, she falls for Paulina, the forbidden love interest and daughter of the enemy. Jessie must earn her old team’s trust and work with them to save Gregory’s victims from a grisly fate.

Jessie is a hard protagonist to like and cheer for. She’s immature and impatient, causing her to make the same mistakes over and over again. She messes up and expects immediate forgiveness as soon as she shows remorse, never allowing her loved ones the time and space they need to heal from the hurt she caused.

She also has a righteous complex that is obnoxious. Jessie falls into the “not like other girls” trap and considers such women who engage in what are considered narcissistic activities as beneath her. She also tends to lean toward a colonizer’s savior complex, which is especially poignant when she talks to her friend Hala, a woman she brought into the fold after helping her seek asylum in England when Hala was accused of being a terrorist.

Being unlikeable doesn’t make her a bad character, though. It just makes her a frustrating one. However, her inner dialogue reveals her reasons behind her actions and adds a layer of sympathy for readers to latch onto. Jessie recognizes that while Athena’s vigilante missions do good, they can’t pretend they don’t ever do bad in the process. It makes up the hero’s internal conflict throughout the novel. Jessie constantly questions how much bad Athena can do for the sake of good before they themselves become the bad guys.

The pacing and action of the story keep it moving, making the book a quick read. The fight scenes are exciting and keep the reader hooked, wondering what comes next and if the hero will escape certain death. Jessie’s computer and tech skills are also a point of appreciation. Her technical prowess makes her a formidable agent of good, as she offers both brain and brawn.

Ultimately, the action and pace are what keep the novel going. The character development and dynamics don’t delve deep enough for readers to create an attachment to the people and their conflicts. There was potential for rich relationships, but the writing only scratched the surface with Jessie and her comrades.

The most interesting character dynamic was Jessie and Paulina, as their roles created a star-crossed lovers scenario. With Jessie being on the side of good and Paulina being the daughter of the villain, it seemed like readers could tell where that relationship was going. But the twist at the end came as a surprise and made for a satisfying bit of character growth.

Aside from this relationship though, the characters felt shallow. Especially with Jessie, it felt like a great deal of the emotions and behaviors were unexplained or unearned. Most of what her character did felt out of left field.

The way Jessie’s queer identity is handled seemed odd at the end. Throughout the novel, she’s not exactly shy about the way she feels about Paulina. She’s not running around the streets yelling it at the top of her lungs, but she doesn’t run away from the bond they create either.

So in the end, when her mother, Kit, reveals that she didn’t know Jessie liked women, it was confusing. Jessie’s sexuality is never explicitly discussed between her and the other characters, so it felt like it was common knowledge and accepted. Kit’s revelation indicates otherwise though.

The best part of the book is its diverse cast of characters. Athena is made of women from various backgrounds, from British to Arabic to American and Black. Its founder is an Asian woman who reads like a Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark type, using her billions and tech company to fund the espionage organization.

Overall, the premise and characters had a lot of potential, but I don’t think Sarif reached it. It is still a fun and fast read for anyone looking for an action-packed book with kick-butt ladies.

Susan reviews Piper Deez and the Case of the Winter Planet by M. Fenn

Piper Deez and the Case of the Winter Planet is a hardboiled scifi mystery by M. Fenn; Piper Deez is sent to investigate thefts on a mining planet owned by the clan that she serves, where there are definitely no factions, no bubbling undercurrents of resentment, and only a few murders.

Hello, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, lesbian detective fiction is where I live. Piper Deez and the Case of the Winter Planet was always going to be my jam.

The world building is quite cool, and has some interesting imagery – I felt a bit blinded with science at first, but once the story finds its stride it’s easier to enjoy the imagery of a tiny town huddling beneath a permanent ice storm and unpick the politics at play. I also find it a cool distinction in the world building that there is a specific difference between being married and being monogamous, as the default appears to be polyamory in this setting.

Plus, I did like that it tried to talk about class privilege in this universe – there are multiple clans, which have a definite hierarchy, and I enjoyed the discussions of smaller clans unionising to gain more bargaining power. Making Piper Deez a member of a more prestigious clan is an interesting choice however, as it gives her more privilege (and ability to get her job done, or protect people) than I expected from a hardboiled investigator. It does engage with it a little, but it mostly seems to be “Piper hates using the power of her clan but does when it would help her,” which is appropriate for the setting… And kinda nice to see for a queer woman of colour, actually. (And yes, people without clans are treated exactly as well as you expect from all this.)

I found this to be part of the interesting spins on the hardboiled detective tropes – Piper Deez is a newly-wed who is very upfront that she used to be into casual sex before she got married, but is now monogamous, and she actually (tries to) stick to that even in the face of the classic femme fatale, which is honestly more than I expected of a pulp detective. (Her wife doesn’t show up in the story, but is mentioned a lot and with genuine fondness.) And as I said, she’s not only gainfully employed, but she’s actually coming into this story from a position of (relative) privilege, which is fascinating.

The mystery itself is a lot of fun, and it was honestly nice to see a story where the protagonist did reach out to others for help and received it without immediate betrayal. There were aspects that didn’t feel quite built up enough, but they were close enough to genre conventions that I could roll with it – police corruption and harassment are a staple of the genre, so the scenes of look closer, not everything is as it seems weren’t exactly a surprise. On the other hand, the last third felt quite rushed in terms of reveals, consequences, and how the actual ending went down; I had my suspicions about who was behind everything but even with that I was left going “Wait, no, slow down, shouldn’t you talk to someone about this reveal —?”

But it worked! Piper Deez and the Case of the Winter Planet was a short and pulpy mystery, and while the ending didn’t quite gel together for me, I really enjoyed it rolling familiar tropes into a sci fi setting.

This review was based on a copy provided by the author.

[Caution warnings: partner abuse, abuse of power, police harassment, oppression]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Lena reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

ascension

We learn in elementary school not to judge a book by its cover, but it might be worth it for Jacqueline Koyanagi’s debut novel.  The woman on the front looks a bit like Gina Torres if Firefly had merged with Star Wars and it’s completely amazing.  What’s inside is a completely entertaining science fiction adventure totally worth of the Gina Torres look-a-like on the front.

Koyanagi’s built an interesting world with all the staples one would expect in a good sci fi.  There are spaceships, interplanetary travel and aliens, but also a thoroughly interesting socio-political landscape in which the convergence of science and magic have created a mystical super-corporation capable of economic and social control through emotional and technological manipulation.

In the midst of all this is Alana Quick, a destitute spaceship engineer or sky surgeon trying to make ends meet in her aunt’s repair shop while dealing with a degenerative disease in a world without universal healthcare.  She’s a charming character with a unique voice made up of a nice blend of confidence and insecurity.  It’s also very refreshing to see a character with a chronic illness that is part of their life but not the defining characteristic of their existence.  Instead, Alana is governed by her love of spaceships, specifically a ship called Tangled Axon that lands in her shipyard looking for Alana’s sister Nova.  Desperate to get off the planet, Alana stows on board hoping they’ll need an engineer.  They allow her to stay in exchange for helping finding Nova and Alana is promptly embroiled in the mess of their lives.

It’s a fun book.  The action moves along at a nice pace and Koyanagi has a good sense for when to push the plot and when to let her moments sit.  The relationship that blossom between Alana and the crew of Tangled Axon are the glue that holds the story together.  It’s also clear that, like many other sci fi and fantasy pieces, Koyanagi’s building a world to tell stories about people who don’t often get to be the heroes.  Her dedication to that ideal comes through strongest and what makes this such a lovely little story.  We’re presented with a world without much patriarchal or gender-based hierarchy – all the leadership roles in the book are held by women.  It’s awesome and highlights what seems like a very intentional lack of masculine presence.  One could see a missed opportunity to make something of that difference in leadership, to capitalize on the differences between the story and reality, but it’s treated as completely natural.  For the story Koyanagi’s trying to tell, that’s the stronger choice.  She gives us world that has already come together to include and showcase the people who are still finding their voices in ours.

Alyssa reviews Women on the Edge of Space

Women on the Edge of Space is a chapbook of four sci-fi, erotica short stories. While it is billed as an anthology, it is neither long nor consistent enough for that to be an accurate descriptor. It contains the following four works:

1. “The Many Little Deaths of Cicilia Long” by Shanna Germain
2. “Fair as the Moon, Clear as the Sun” by Laurel Waterford
3. “Adrift” by Kaysee Renee Robichaud
4. “Unfolding Her Wings” by Elizabeth Black

There is a bit of a disconnect in the subject matter. The first short story is what I wanted this collection to be, considering the ambitious presentation of the chapbook: science fiction in essence, with erotic content that is integral to, but not the overall point of, the story. In the latter three short stories, while science fiction is present—the stories are set in the future, in space, and contain multiple instances of zero- or low-gravity sex—sci-fi is largely used as a backdrop for erotic fiction. The fourth story works with this, though, showcasing human normalcy and family amid futuristic technological advances.

All of the relationships portrayed in this collection are woman-on-woman. I was particularly pleased with the fourth story for including committed polyamory, and a pregnant woman in an erotic narrative without fetishization; and with the first story, for the central character’s lesbian relationships taking a back seat to her relationship with the cosmos, i.e. nature, which is presented in an erotic manner. As such, I vastly preferred the first and last stories in this collection. The second story is enjoyable, but the characterization is somewhat unrealistic. The third story is decent, but reads essentially like Star Trek fanfiction. This isn’t essentially a bad thing, but does not lend well to originality.

I would not go out of my way to recommend this collection, but if you’re looking for sci-fi lesbian erotica, it will be worth the three dollar ebook price on Amazon.