Maggie reviews Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

When the author described Unconquerable Sun during a livestream as Alexander the Great but gender-swapped and in space, I instantly ordered a copy. Not only could I feel good about supporting an author and an independent bookstore, but a complicated queer space opera sounded like a perfect book to unplug with in an attempt to provide myself with engaging non-screen time. And so it proved to be. Fear not if you, like me, don’t know anything about Alexander the Great–I basically only know that he had an empire and had relationships with men–because while I’m sure that adds a layer of glee in for those in the know, the plot is perfectly understandable to those with no background knowledge. I was instantly drawn into the depth of world-building, the characters, and the unfolding opera of events until I found myself staying up way too late to plow through the last few chapters.

The Republic of Chaonia is currently ruled by queen-marshal Eirene, who brought Chaonia to prominence on the galactic stage through decisive military and diplomatic victories by driving the Phene and Yele out of their territory, and she is widely respected as a brilliant military leader. The book opens with her heir, Sun, winning her own debut military victory in a bid to follow in her powerful mother’s footsteps. Accompanied by her Companions–members of the other ruling houses sent to attend the queen-marshal and the heir as both a sign of cooperation and as political hostages, Sun tries to cement her own place in the line of succession, in the war to keep Chaonia free of the Phene, and in the power struggle constantly surrounding her. Throw in a royal marriage, numerous assassination attempts, and several more battles, and the action never stops. But Sun’s calm, decisive manner, and then ease with which she directions her Companions and those around her also serves to shepherd the reader through the action. It’s rich and exciting and complicated, but it’s not difficult to follow, which is a line many space operas fail to walk.

Besides having very clear and dynamic action scenes, Unconquerable Sun handily introduces a huge cast of characters and sets up some really great relationships. Besides the queen-marshal and her Companions and consorts and Princess Sun and her Companions, the Companions can also have Companions, called ce-ce’s. Less political appointment and more highly trained employees, they nevertheless help make up Sun’s inner circle. Most of Sun’s Companions are set at the beginning of the novel, but it’s the assassination of one of her favorites, along with his ce-ce, that really sets up the crux of the interpersonal dynamics. Plucked from what she thought was a solid cover identity hiding from her family in the military academy, Persephone is given a new ce-ce, Ti, and shoved into the role as her House’s Companion replacement delegate to Sun with little warning and little preparation. As brash as Sun, but less experienced and less polished in diplomacy because of it, Persephone has to figure out what’s going and how to get free of the machinations of her family on while staying alive, and Sun has to figure out how far she can trust her new Companion and her ce-ce. Sun is also dealing with her relationship with one of her other Companions, Hetty, which has been ongoing for a while and must remain hidden, because an heir or queen-marshal is not supposed to show favoritism to a Companion, and she also knows that political marriage is likely in her future. Both her and Hetty’s feelings run deep, however, and their deep and abiding love for each other rings through every interaction they have. “When Hetty smiles, the universe smiles,” Sun thinks early on, and I love to see such a complex, no-nonsense character also act so smitten. The characters are rich and complex, and they become fully fleshed out as the action unfolds around them. It really drew me in and had me invested really fast.

In conclusion, Unconquerable Sun was an intricate and engaging space opera that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who likes sci-fi. It has all of the space elements that sci-fi fans crave, while retaining the complex, character-rich action that readers who want more of a saga will love.  Its queerness is woven into the very fabric of the story, from the setup of the court, to Sun’s relationship with Hetty. And it left me wanting more. This is an exemplary beginning to what promises to be an epic series. The queer space quarantine read that we all deserve right now.

Arina reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Reading Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension has been long overdue for me. This sapphic Sci-Fi with a metaphysical twist is the type of read you don’t often find in the genre.

It centers on Alana, an engineer specializing in spaceship repair. She has a special connection with energy and metal, an inexplicable bond that drives her devotion.

She and her aunt Lai survive only on the pittance given to them by the sparse work arriving at their engineering station.

In their rapidly decaying planet, survival is a daily struggle that most times comes short. It is this fact, propelled by Alana’s hidden desires, that prompts her to stowaway on a ship whose crew arrives at her station looking for her sister, Nova, who is something akin to a spiritual life coach.

Told from Alana’s first-person POV, the outset of this story swiftly establishes an interesting background. Jacqueline wastes no time in capturing your attention with her setting, one that highlights the destructive consequences gentrification and a corporate-monolithic society have on minority communities.

I was immediately drawn to this discussion on lack of opportunity and accessibility (the major in the book being accessibility to healthcare, due to Alana and her aunt’s chronic illness), drawing clear parallels to our contemporary world and dissecting it, exposing its entrails for all readers to see.

In Ascension, the oppressive force is Transliminal, a corporation from another universe that has seized control of technological and medicinal advancements.

Through Alana’s chronic condition we are given a lens into the many failings of our society when it comes to the intersectionality of marginalized identities and illness.

Alana’s chronic pain does not define her, yet it is an inherent part of her. Her disorder also helps carve a clear picture of this society’s inequality, and the decisions people with a chronic illness have to face to live another day.

Alana does have some agency over her pain, frequently demonstrating a tremendous force of will and powering through it in critical situations (which eventually leads to her ceding ground to it). She expresses in equal measure the insecurities, exhaustion, and relentlessness that come with an arresting illness.

It sparked a fire in me to read a character like that, with a side that doesn’t usually make it on the cast roster, much less the main stage.

Family is the catalyst for this very much character-driven story, but I could not fully connect to their relationships.

They have a good dynamic, but trust seems to come conveniently easily between them, sometimes going against their own words. Backstories are delivered very matter-of-factly, at moments defined to make you immediately care for them.

I personally need a bit more first-hand emotional involvement but there were still exciting things about the cast I deeply enjoyed. They are a diverse cast, including disabled characters and lgbtq+ characters, who are people with real worries and connections.

Asides from the sapphic romance, there’s also a polyamorous relationship (I loved how healthy it was!), and there’s an effort to make them more than a cardboard cut-out of their identities meant to check a box.

It’s clear they come from a place of respect and this is exactly the sort of representation that elevates a story for me.

Though the beginning crafts this gripping message wrapped around a new world, many times it’s not picked apart enough. I felt I was not eased into many of the workings and concepts of this world, nor allowed to explore them. I could not prod at the worldbuilding like I love to do, instead, I had to surmise it by myself.

It was the ending that inevitably pulled me in and GOD. WHAT AN ENDING. The excitement and mystery in these final chapters fully enraptured me, delivering a plot twist that I was definitely not expecting.

All in all, there is much to like about this book and even with its slightly underdeveloped underpinnings, I found this a satisfying story that reaches further into the possibilities of the genre.

Arina first discovered stories through their grandparents, who would regale them with tales of misbehaving kangaroos and gentle untailed monkeys, igniting a spark that would spread the wildfire of their love for books. Currently, they mostly brave the wild worlds of SFF but is actually a sucker for any great journey no matter its realm. You can find them at @voyagerarina and their blog.

Susan reviews Four Bodies in Space by Luna Harlow

Four Bodies in Space by Luna Harlow

Luna Harlow’s Four Bodies in Space reads like a queer pastiche of Star Trek: The Original Series. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: our protagonist, Commander Solaris, is a very emotionally-restrained biracial scientist with psychometry and pointed ears on a ship run by a dramatic captain and the cult of personality he’s gathered around himself. Their mission: escort diplomats of different species across the galaxy so they can make advantageous trade deals. Captain Jennifer Li is both brilliant and charismatic, and the person tasked with investigating when the guests and crew are murdered en route.

I’m not saying that this reads like someone’s genderswap AU, but it does happen to ring some bells!

The world-setting reads like the a future extrapolated from the sixties as well, like highlighting that the crew is “a series of downcast pale white boys with brown hair” at the Captain’s request, a man married to a woman twenty years younger than him (who flings herself at the protagonists…), or a secondary character asking whether Solaris is frigid or easy based on racial stereotypes, and yes I did have to read that with my own two eyes in this, the year 2020. I assume that the background misogyny has been carried over so it can be engaged with in future books, but it’s not really dealt with here. On the flip side, I did enjoy the way that the references to bizarre events were brought up, because all of the “Oh, I remember this mirrorverse episode!” was worked into the story quite naturally, and treated as normal hazards of the job! I enjoyed that a lot. I did think that the writing of the initial section was a little stilted until the book switches to Jennifer Li’s point of view and I realised that it was just Commander Solaris’ narration. There’s a beautiful level of deadpan snark in her descriptions, which works great with the tropes Four Bodies in Space is using. Like, at one point she describes the competent (female) second-in-command subsuming her life into the (male) captain’s as “unfortunate heterosexual longings” and I was IMMEDIATELY sold. So there is a basis for my idea that these tropes are here on purpose!

The actual mystery plot is quite flimsy. There are some leaps of logic that were a little hard for me to follow, and some of the denouement doesn’t hold together if you’re reading it as a mystery. But if you’re reading it as the lead-in to the inevitable partnership between Solaris and Li, it all works hangs together fairly well! I will say that some of that inevitability is predictability as well – the beats of how their relationship forms will not surprise you! But it’s fun, and it’s a solid set-up to a series, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for future installments.

[Caution warning: sabotage, murder, racism against fictional races, misogyny] [This review is based on an ARC from Netgalley]

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 as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Dragon Bike: Fantastical Stories of Bicycling, Feminism, & Dragons edited by Elly Blue

Dragon Bike edited by Elly Blue

Dragon Bike is the newest addition to the Bikes in Space series of Microcosm publishing, which all deal with feminist bicyclist science fiction stories, but each volume has a different sub-theme. I previously reviewed volume 4, Biketopia, and like that one, this isn’t entirely queer stories–there are only a few included–but there are even fewer stories that are straight.

I love the diversity in this collection, in every sense. It’s a joy to read through the authors pages, which include queer, disabled, and trans authors, as well as authors of colour. On top of that, though, I’m always interested to see how the theme plays out in each Bikes in Space story, because there’s always a huge range. Some are sci fi, some fantasy, and some more realistic. In Dragon Bike stories, the dragons can be a myth (from many cultures), a danger, an infestation, a protector, a computer program, and–of course–a bike. Witchcanics work on creations that are equal parts machine and magic. A nonbinary kid and their friends seek revenge on a slave driver. You’re never sure what you’re going to get in the next story.

Since this is the Lesbrary, I’ll point out the sapphic stories!

The collection begins with “Chen D’Angelo and the Chinese-Italian Dragon” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, which takes place on a generation ship. The main character is a Chinese-Italian kid with two moms who have a Chinese pizzeria. Her best friend is Deaf and uses sign language. I loved this one, and although it works well as a short story, I kept imagining it as a picture book! I would love to see this generation ship, and the final dragon in its glory. Totally cute.

“Bootleg” by Alice Pow follows a trans and queer main character living in a too-familiar corporate dystopia, where bikes have become so overpriced that only the wealthy can own them. Candace has been scrounging (and stealing) bike parts to make her own, but now she’s down to the last piece she needs, and she’ll have to take it from the factory itself, dodging past the bots working there. This is a short one, but it’s fun. I’d like to see more of Candace’s life: “‘We’re like if Bonnie and Clyde didn’t kill people.’ Maia turned to kiss Candace’s forehead. ‘And we’re queer as hell.’ ‘That, too.'”

“The Dragon’s Lake” by Sarena Ulibarri has a bit of a fairy tale with a twist feel to it. Lita was meant to be saving the princess from a dragon–but things went awry, and now somehow she’s being held captive by a dragon. There’s a whole island full of them, being put to work by the dragon and its giant snail cronies. Lita is still reeling from her recent breakup, but she starts to get close to another woman on the island. This is another one I’d like to see expanded: personally, I like the D&D feel of the original cave mission, so I would have liked to see that.

“‘Til We Meet Again” by Joyce Chng features the dragon bike races, and a romance between two competitors. This is super cute!

As with all anthologies, there are some stories that I liked more than others, but I enjoyed seeing all of the different directions that authors took this prompt. I’d definitely like to pick up more Bikes in Space books.

Danika reviews The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep by Chana PorterThe Seep is a weird fiction novella (200 pages) exploring a “soft” alien invasion utopia. It begins with a section titled “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World.” Earth is being invaded by a disembodied alien species–which turns out to be a good thing. The Seep forms a symbiotic relationship with humans. They get to experience linear time and human emotions, and in exchange, well, they solve basically every problem people have ever had. Illness, inequality, capitalism, pollution and climate change all disappear. People develop intense empathy for everyone and everything in the world. Everything and everyone is connected, anything imagined is possible, and everyone is immortal to boot.

A utopia may seem like a set up for a boring book: where’s the conflict? But although The Seep just wants everyone to be happy, it doesn’t understand human complexity and why we might like things that are bad for us. In fact, despite having every opportunity imaginable, Trina is miserable. She is grieving, and she’s tired of this new world: everyone is constantly emotionally processing and high on The Seep. She finds herself nostalgic for struggle and purpose. She’s trans, and after fighting for so long, she’s at home in her body and vaguely irritated at people who treat changing faces and growing wings as a whim.

Despite the big premise, the real story is about Trina’s journey through grief. Her relationship with her wife is over (I won’t spoil why), and no amount of The Seep wand-waving will fix it. This alien species of superior intellect, power, and empathy can’t grasp why she would choose to feel pain, to poison herself with alcohol, to neglect her home and relationships. This novella shows what being human really means, and how no world, no matter how idyllic, really can be without conflict–but that’s just part of the experience of being alive.

I loved how queer this is. From the beginning, Trina and Deeba are having a dinner party with two other queer couples. I liked the discussion of what race and gender and sex mean in a world where you can change your appearance effortlessly. Trina and Deeba are both racialized women. Trina is Jewish and indigenous, and other Jewish and racialized characters appear as side characters. I appreciated this focus, but I acknowledge that I am reading this from a white, non-Jewish, cis perspective, and although the author is bisexual, this is not as far as I know an own voices representation of any of the other marginalizations that Trina has. I would be interested to read reviews by trans, Jewish, and indigenous readers.

If you’re looking for a short, thoughtful, and weird read–definitely pick this up. I loved the writing and the characterizations (there are so few good bear characters in books, you know?), and I look forward to picking up anything this Chana Porter writes next!

Meagan Kimberly reviews Starfall Ranch by California Dawes

Starfall Ranch by California Dawes

Shiloh “Shy” Kerridan moved off-planet to Sirona to start a new life five years before. Thisbe Vandergoss just escaped Earth to Sirona to elude the clutches of her evil parents. She left behind a life of wealth and privilege for the freedom she craved. Thisbe applied to be a mail-order bride for a rancher by the name of Sean Kerridan, but she ended up on the wrong side of the planet and met Shy instead. Shenanigans ensue.

It takes a long time for the story to really take off. A short chapter is spent on introducing Shy’s character, but then several chapters take up Thisbe’s story as she contends with her parents’ dastardly plans to force her into a medical procedure she does not want to do. It’s not until Thisbe accidentally ends up at Starfall Ranch and meets Shy that the story starts. Everything before the meet-cute is set up.

The misunderstandings that occur as Shy and Thisbe meet and interact are cliche, but they work. It creates a compelling relationship that makes the reader invested in their romance. It’s the perfect formula for the rom-com genre. Shy and Thisbe are such a stark contrast of one another on the surface, and that’s what gives them chemistry. For anyone that fantasized about a relationship between Tahani and Eleanor on The Good Place, this comes close.

But the character development did leave something to be desired. After a certain point, it became hard to distinguish the main characters’ voices from one another. In real life, there’s a certain crossover that occurs when people develop close relationships, but the way Thisbe and Eleanor both spoke began to blur the line between who was who. It especially didn’t fit with Thisbe’s background.

Thisbe’s characterization felt all over the map. She was raised in a wealthy society, but she spoke like someone from a middle-class background. There are a few details that tell the reader she rebelled against her parents’ manipulative upbringing, but it doesn’t totally explain her tone and word choice when she speaks. Not to say that rich people can’t cuss, but the way she was described didn’t jive with the way she acted and spoke. There was a lot of dissonance with her character.

Shy’s character remains a mystery throughout most of the novel. It’s clear she has some demons of her own to contend with, but the audience doesn’t even get a glimpse of them until nearly the end of the book. Close to the end, Shy tells Thisbe her background story, implying her survival of sexual assault. The narrative doesn’t go into detail, but it doesn’t have to. That’s not the point of her sharing her story. It’s meant to build trust with Thisbe.

It does feel like Shy’s story should come up sooner. An earlier introduction of her issues in the narrative would have made the impact of Thisbe’s perceived betrayal much more impactful. Regardless, the reader is still invested in their reunion after the fallout.

There is a scene that stands out as problematic, based on Thisbe’s word choice. She is at dinner with the slimy, straight male character in the story, purely out of espionage and survival. But of course, Shy happens upon them just at the wrong time and thinks the worst. Shy thinks the two are romantically involved, and Thisbe’s reaction is not great. She states, “I’m going to pretend like you didn’t just insinuate I’m secretly straight…”

What makes that dialogue problematic is that it erases the spectrum of queerness. To imply that the only right way for a woman to be queer is to be a lesbian who is only interested in women. It erases bisexuality and other queer identities. It’s an angry statement made in the heat of the moment, but it implies that interest in a man makes queer women less queer. There’s no room for nuance.

The book counts as a sci-fi romance because it takes place on a whole other planet, but that setting is wasted in this story. Starfall Ranch and its surrounding communities have enough in common with Earth that only the names of different fruits and plants distinguish it. More than that, the focus was solely on the relationship and romance between Shy and Thisbe.

The story could have taken place anywhere and it wouldn’t have affected their relationship. The use of an off-planet setting merely worked as a tool for Thisbe to put distance between her and her parents. She could have done that by moving to the other side of the world, not to another planet.

Dawes’ novel includes a non-binary character that never gets explained, and that is a refreshing change of pace. It’s made clear they’re non-binary because Wallis strictly goes by they/them pronouns. The characters around them accept it without question and no one ever feels compelled to give a vocabulary lesson. It’s clear this is meant for a knowledgeable audience and never meant to make those who are not in the know comfortable.

Overall, it’s a fun romance story and it keeps the reader interested enough to have an investment in the characters’ happily ever after.

Susan reviews Provenance by Ann Leckie

Provenance by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie’s Provenance centres on Ingray, the daughter of a prominent politician on her planet, as she attempts to put one over her brother by smuggling a notorious criminal out of an inescapable free-range prison. Unfortunately, she’s got the wrong person. What follows is murder, terrorism, several diplomatic incidents, and a mild alien invasion.

It’s excellent.

As you can probably expect from a story by Ann Leckie, the world-building is expansive and full of politics! Inter-family, inter-planetary, inter-empire (including some of the ripple effects from the Imperial Radch trilogy)… There is a lot going on, and watching Ingray navigate parts of it with ease and figure out how to navigate the more alien parts of it was delightful. The world-building of her planet specifically is fascinating – their culture is built around vestiges, items that were present in significant events of history or in someone’s life, and as you can guess from the title, their provenance and the meaning people impart to these objects is incredibly important. It’s a fascinating cultural note, as is the fact that everyone gets to choose their gender at adulthood, including choosing to not have a gender, and that’s just respected at a cultural level!

There are so many complicated relationships here, both politically and famillialy; Ingray and her brother have a very fractious relationship where they hate and envy and distrust each other, but they protect and cover for each other out of loyalty to the family, and it’s excellently written. It ties into their relationships with their mother, their respective family roles and skills, and the details of the plot. It’s fantastic. And the relationship she builds with her stolen criminal (who happens to be both non-binary and dry as the desert) delights me! As does Ingray, for that matter; she gets to be anxious and cry a lot, but still be the protagonist and good at her job whether that’s politics, managing the press, or protecting her family! Her entire world is turned upside down (only partially by her own hand), and seeing her response to it made me very happy. Especially the romances: there are two romances, and they’re very subtle and gentle, which is pretty much ideal for me.

The long and the short of it is that Provenance had me at the complicated siblings, and then it brought me a story about history, artifacts, and politics as well, of course I was going to love it.

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 as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

[Caution warnings: child endangerment, bullying, terrorism]

Susan reviews Essex Colony by Lia Cooper

Essex Colony by Lia Cooper

Lia Cooper’s Essex Colony has the set up of a really cool survival horror movie: the first colony on Essex Prime went radio-silent almost a year ago. Soran Ingram, an AI whose lover was the Executive Officer of the colony, is part of the crew sent to investigate–only to discover that most of the colonists are dead, and the XO has become a sentient wolf-creature.

So what I’m saying is that if your life is missing a robot/werewolf romance in space, you’re welcome!

I found Essex Colony to be quite rushed; I was hoping for more suspense, more cat-and-mouse, more time spent on the build up of what went wrong, more pay-off for the characters who were blatantly being set up as working against the protagonists for Capitalism. There is some of that, but a lot is handled off-screen or summarised. A little disappointing for me, but it’s a very short book, so I’m assuming that there wasn’t the space for anything but the characters going from plot point to plot point, mostly stumbling across the plot rather than actively discovering it. It still works, and I was still invested in Soran and Aster getting off this planet alive, but it felt a little too straightforward.

Most of the world-building is interesting; the werewolf mythology works particularly well, and the explanation for what happened to the colonists appealed to my Doom-movie-loving heart! … I never thought I’d say this, but I was a little disappointed that it didn’t go more Doom, because having every single human turn out to be a horrific bigot at heart was disappointing. I’m also morbidly intrigued by the world-building that isn’t explained; we’re told that the Earth is dying, but also humans are referred to as Anglo-Earthers, which sounds to me like some horrific western supremacist nonsense happened before the book even started.

I liked Soran as a character; she was a lot more human and human-like than I was expecting from the blurb (this is even called out in the text, because why would anyone make a robot that they couldn’t have sex with), but I can appreciate her being exactly what she appears to be. And Aster, the XO, was fun, and it was very easy to see why Soran liked her! I would have liked to see a little more of them actually interacting, rather than meeting up, exchanging plans, and then both running off in opposite directions all the time, but I’m assuming that the space constraints of a novella didn’t allow for it.

In fact, I think most of my issues with Essex Colony could have been worked out with a little more space. The climax is quite muddled, to the point where I’m not sure what the characters were trying to achieve, but everything was definitely exploding and on fire! Like the lack of build-up, it would probably have been improved by having more room to breathe, and the ending might have felt more tidy rather than leaving most of the threads unresolved. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be the first book in a series–I didn’t see anything on the Nine Star Press website to say s –but if it isn’t, there’s a lot left unanswered, and I could see it being frustrating.

So it had some flaws, but I did enjoy Essex Colony! Sci fi/survival horror is one of those genres where I will read and watch everything I can in it, and this is a fine addition to that roster. But honestly, I might start recommending it for the sheer novelty of finding a robot/werewolf pairing outside of fandom.

[Caution warnings: bigotry, murder]

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 as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Susan reviews Changing Course by Brey Willows

Changing Course by Brey Willows

Brey Willow’s Changing Course opens with Jessa and her crew abandoning their damaged spaceship and crashlanding on Indemnion – a planet so ill-regarded that most shipping routes don’t go near it. Fortunately for her, she and her crew are rescued by Kylin, a scrounger with a heart of gold, who takes Jessa under her wing as they fly across the planet looking for survivors.

I had very mixed feelings about this. My intial reaction on twitter was “This feels like someone’s f/f Star Trek/Star Wars crossover fic,” which probably coloured my read of it as someone who’s only tangentially aware of Star Trek. It’s hard to say how much of that feeling was based on the background politics of space (which are conveniently ignored because the protagonists are stuck on a planet that no one wants to go to), and how much was based on the fact that Jessa is supposed to be from a planet where emotions are frowned upon so thoroughly that most people are able to ignore them entirely. We don’t really get to see that though, because she’s quite emotional and open even from the start, instead of the emotionally repressed robot I think that I was supposed to assume she was based on her character arc. It feels like Jessa’s almost a blank slate, especially compared to how involved and dramatic Kylin’s backstory is in comparison. I think its intentional, but it does give the impression that her life now revolves around Kylin.

It doesn’t help that the problems are set up and solved too quickly – Jess and Kylin run into a problem, a few paragraphs later they run into a helpful side character who can solve their problem while also making pointed observations about their relationship, and the problem is solved as quickly as it arrived. The structure is repeated all through the book, and it works for introducing more of the world and keeping the action moving, but it meant that it didn’t feel like there was much tension. Perhaps if the narrative had really leaned into that and built on its episodic bones, it might have been more consistent! And for all that a lot of the world was introduced, the actual world building felt a bit scant. Not in terms of how it was described, because some of the imagery in it is beautiful, but in terms of how Indemnion is structured socially beyond “rich people live here, lower classes live here,” which doesn’t work for a story where at least some of the problems are of a planetary scale. And quite frankly, I have questions about the ending though, because all of Jessa’s objection as to Kylin’s life as a fighter was resolved way too quickly. Jessa has SERIOUS qualms Kylin’s ability and choice to do violence, which feel like they’re shoved to one side rather than addressed. And I’m very disappointed in the epilogue, because it crams so many cultural and relationship changes into a small space, when that one chapter could have been an entire book on its own. … Also I’m assuming that “and lo the slavers are enslaved themselves due to the prison-industrial complex” is supposed to be dramatic irony, because otherwise what the hell.

All that said, it did move quickly and have some cool world-building and setting, and I was very fond of Asol, a young adventurer that they pick up while they’re travelling. I think my biggest problem with it was that it didn’t give the story enough time or depth to actually explore all of the cool things it set up.

[Caution warning: dying parent, slavery and enslavement, mentions of abuse and eating human flesh.]

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 as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

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.