I am still catching up with all the awesome 2020 releases and this was one of my most anticipated ones. Debut author Linden A. Lewis delivered a kick-ass first novel that – while flawed – got me excited for her world and for the next books in the trilogy. I’m telling you, this is a tough year to pick favorites… I’m already dreading my favorite books of the year list but I guess I’ll just cheat and make it super long. 🙂
THE FIRST SISTER
by Linden A. Lewis
Published: Skybound Books, 2020
eBook: 352 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 33 minutes
Series: The First Sister Trilogy #1
My rating: 7.5/10
Opening line: The new fool captain arrives in two houers, so I sort my belongings and pack them into a small bag.
Combining the social commentary of The Handmaid’s Tale with the white-knuckled thrills of Red Rising, this epic space opera follows a comfort woman as she claims her agency, a soldier questioning his allegiances, and a non-binary hero out to save the solar system.
First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.
Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.
A stunning and sweeping debut novel that explores the power of technology, colonization, race, and gender, The First Sister is perfect for fans of James S.A. Corey, Chuck Wendig, and Margaret Atwood.
I love me a book with multiple POVs. In this case, we get three: The eponymous First Sister who is a Gaean priestess serving on a space ship where she (and her fellow Sisters) are there to give comfort to the soldiers. Comfort in the form of taking confessions as well as bodily comforts… they’re basically prostitutes, except they don’t get paid and their job is considered religious in nature. The sisters cannot speak and are limited to sign language among each other and using facial expressions and body language when “talking” to others. It’s an intriguing premise that immediately asks questions about bodily autonomy, identity, and freedom. First Sister is lucky insofar as she is First Sister – a privilege granted by the ship’s captain which means she is his own private courtisan and none of the other soldiers can request her services. But at the very beginning of the book, the captain is going into retirement and does not keep his promise of taking First Sister with him. She is stuck on the ship Juno once more and has to regain her First Sister privilege with the new captain, the charismatic war hero Saito Ren.
The second perspective we follow is Lito, an Icarii soldier fighting against the Gaeans. Icarii duelists are paired together as Dagger and Rapier, two people who not only fight as a team but are also emotionally connected via neural implant. They can share messages and emotions through these implants which makes them even better fighters.
But Lito’s partner Hiro val Akira is missing. More than missing, they are branded as a deserter and Lito’s new mission is to find and kill them. Needless to say, he has qualms about executing his former partner, friend, and maybe even romantic interest. Newly paired with Ofiera, Lito goes onto the mission anyway, fighting his feelings the entire time. When new information about the war comes to light, Lito has to rethink his entire existence, however, not just whether he will actually go through with killing his friend…
Our third perspective comes in the form of recordings by Hiro val Akira himself, left to Lito as a sort of explanation/goodbye. Through these chapters, we learn more about Hiro and Lito’s back story, the battle of Ceres which was a turning point for the war between Icarii and Gaeans, and how Hiro came to be a traitor to their people.
You may have noticed that Hiro uses they/them pronouns. Their gender identity isn’t talked about much. They are simply Hiro and they go by “they”. It was quite refreshing to see a nonbinary character in this sci-fi story without their gender identity being an issue. First Sister identifies as female, Lito identifies as male, and all the side characters also fall onto one side of a binary, but people generally accept Hiro as Hiro – although there are instances where characters wilfully disrespect their wish for they/them pronouns.
But that’s not the only interesting thing Lewis does with gender in this story. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the rest without spoiling things, so you’ll just have to believe me. 🙂
Although the book is called The First Sister, I found her to be the weakest aspect of the story. First Sister is a good character to follow but, boy is she flawed. I don’t mean as a person (she is that too, but I’m considering that a good thing that makes her more believable) but as a part of the world she lives in. In fact, the whole Sisterhood is a great idea that wasn’t executed very well. I can suspend my disbelief about the Sisters being unable to speak – because whatever religious reason demands it – and I can even see who a society evolved that has prostitutes on a war ship to keep up the soldiers’ morale. As despicable as this may be, it makes sense within this world Lewis has set up.
What bothered me a lot, though, was how little explored the horrors of such a world were and how isolated First Sister felt the entire time. Sure, as First Sister, her only “patron” is the captain of the ship, but she does occasionally communicate with other Sisters as well as Aunt Marshae who is a sort of overseer for the Sisters. Her only friend is a soldier named Ringer. Apart from that, First Sister doesn’t have much personality. She doesn’t want to be a Sister but dreams of a quiet, simple home on Mars. But her life on the Juno doesn’t feel believable. It’s unlikely that she would have no relationship with the other Sisters whatsoever, that she doesn’t see how they are dealing with their lives. And because First Sister only “services” the captain, we don’t see the horrors of the Sisterhood. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have wanted to read graphic scenes of how the other Sisters are used, but it would have helped to see the aftermath of their experiences. Since First Sister barely communicates with them and the story is told from her POV, we don’t get to see the other Sisters’ suffering (or whether they consider it suffering at all). To me, this was a lost opportunity to flesh out the world, show us different characters, and explore why First Sister hates the system so much.
As for the larger story arc, this book was very much part one in a trilogy. It sets up certain things that will probably become the main plot in the sequel. I really enjoyed the world building, even though certain aspects of it could use more depth. First Sister’s dangerous relationship with Saito Ren, the ongoing war between the technologically advanced Icarii and the nature-loving Gaeans, and the Asters – genetically changed humans living on the asteroid belt – there’s a lot to discover. Lewis did some heavy lifting when it comes to world building without lenghty expositions and she got me hooked early on. Character-wise, Lito and Hiro are easily the most interesting people in this book. First Sister, unfortunately, fell a little flat.
As for the plot, there are some great twists at the end that actually made me gasp. I did not see it coming but it worked perfectly within the story, it didn’t feel cheap, and its implications and consequences will carry on into the next book.
As for the audiobook version, it is narrated by Emily Woo Zeller, Neo Cihi, and Gary Tiedemann who read the three POVs respectively. I thought each of them did a fantastic job in bringing the characters to life. Zeller’s voice felt a little too sensuous and sexy to me at first, but whenever First Sister was afraid or excited, the emotion totally came through in the narration and made the audiobook a great experience. Cihi and Tiedemann I liked right from the start and they stayed brilliant until the very end. It was also really nice to have someone pronounce the (very few) Japanese words or names in a way that sounds Japanese – I don’t speak it, so I can’t judge if it was actually pronounced correctly, but it definitely helped with the immersion. So: Audiobook highly recommended!
Although the book has some debut problems, I am deeply impressed with Linden A. Lewis’ work and storytelling ability. It also felt like she has the whole story planned out – at least in broad strokes – and we will get a satisfying trilogy. I’m definitely going to read the next book, The Second Rebel, which is currently set to come out in August 2021.
MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!