BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Ship Surgeon Alana wants to escape the rock she is on, but the consequences of her stowing away on the Tangled Axon will influence the destiny of her sister, her world, and far beyond.
PROS: Character types, orientations, and relationships rarely seen in genre fiction, believably and engagingly presented; a beautiful cover that proudly proclaims its marker on the field.
CONS: Some aspects of the background, technology, and worldbuilding are either too sketchily described or do not hold up under scrutiny.
BOTTOM LINE: A strongly distinctive and memorable debut novel.
Alana Quick is a ship’s surgeon. That is to say, she is a starship mechanic. The problem is, with anyone and everyone switching over from standard starships to the amazing ships that come from the dimension-traveling Transluminal Solutions, business is not good. In point of fact, she’s not that far from a hardscrabble existence and she still has dreams of being a ship’s surgeon on board a ship, traveling the stars. So when the Tangled Axon comes into her shipyard, the temptation to stowaway is irresistible. Trouble is, the crew is looking for her sister, as are others, who are willing to kill or cause massive destruction in their wake to get her. Oh and did I mention Alana is not your typical Caucasian protagonist, with a kinsey score well above 0, and is dealing with a disability, a debilitating illness slowly eating her alive?
The strengths of Ascension, the debut novel from Jacqueline Koyanagi, lie with the nature and the relationships described here. Alana is minority, female, gender queer, and suffering from a chronic disease. While it sounds glibly like a reversal of the typical genre protagonist on every front, the author makes Alana into a character rather than a walking list of character traits usually not seen in genre fiction. What’s more, her character traits are important to the other characters and to the plot itself. You couldn’t put a square jawed Engineer Scotty in her place and make the book work.
As Alana is not your typical protagonist, she’s hardly the only entrant in that category. The Tangled Axon is full of interesting characters, most of them women, and most of the characters we meet along the way are women as well. All of them have secrets, complexities and every single of them has a character arc of their own, in addition to Alana. It’s clear there are touches of the author in these characters and she has spent a lot of time crafting them, to the large and the small. One of them, for instance, like her creator, is a maker of chainmail-style jewelry. Although there are some male characters (including one that thinks he is a werewolf. In space.), I am not certain this novel would pass a “Ledhecb” test, and that’s alright by me.
The web of relationships that Alana finds herself entangled into is complex and messy, just like real life relationships. Too, the relationship that Alana has with her sister Nova feels just like what two sisters with very different ambitions, goals and outlooks — but who are still sisters — should be. Their relationship, the heart heart of the book, turns out to be extremely important to the plot on several levels. I am happy to report that the author gets this relationship dead-on right to my perception, and does so with writing that is often poetic, beautiful and a pleasure to read. A scene where the Captain shows Alana a secret room in the ship, and what Alana sees, is written with almost heartrending beauty and emotion.
The novel does have some significant first novel hiccups, however. The haziness of some of the astrography of the universe the author presents us is a drawback to the novel. Especially since we’re not in Sol’s solar system, having a sense for where everything is, given the apparent scale of the story, knowing just where and how this solar system is laid out a little better would have been more helpful. Then there are the spaceships themselves, and other tech. I don’t need to know every weld and every equation that drives a space craft, however, in Ascension, there seems to be a studious avoidance of technology to the point I wondered how some things worked and didn’t work, and it was distracting. Technology is not the point of the story, but given the central conflict of the novel between the two competing technologies, some more detail would have helped with the suspension of disbelief.
Its not a perfect debut by any means. However, now that she has this under her belt, I’d really like to see what else the author has to offer.