Uninspired Feminist Space Story: Stina Leicht – Persephone Station

Man, this is not a good start of the reading year for me. I had been looking forward to this book so much and yet here I am, trying to find the words for another negative review. I’m running out of ways to express my disappointment…

PERSEPHONE STATION
by Stina Leicht

Published: Saga Press, 2021
eBook: 512 pages
audiobook: 11 hours 55 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: The clatter of heavy power-assisted armor echoed off the rocky hills as the corporate mercenaries lined up behind Serrao-Orlov’s latest representative. 

Persephone Station, a seemingly backwater planet that has largely been ignored by the United Republic of Worlds becomes the focus for the Serrao-Orlov Corporation as the planet has a few secrets the corporation tenaciously wants to exploit.

Rosie—owner of Monk’s Bar, in the corporate town of West Brynner—caters to wannabe criminals and rich Earther tourists, of a sort, at the front bar. However, exactly two types of people drank at Monk’s back bar: members of a rather exclusive criminal class and those who sought to employ them.

Angel—ex-marine and head of a semi-organized band of beneficent criminals, wayward assassins, and washed up mercenaries with a penchant for doing the honorable thing—is asked to perform a job for Rosie. What this job reveals will affect Persephone and put Angel and her squad up against an army. Despite the odds, they are rearing for a fight with the Serrao-Orlov Corporation. For Angel, she knows that once honor is lost, there is no regaining it. That doesn’t mean she can’t damned well try.

Let me start with the thing that started out as something I didn’t even notice all that much, then turned into something that became annoying and finally into the One Thing That Drove Me Absolutely Nuts every time it came up. And that is the way Leicht writes dialogue and – to some degree – how audiobook narrator Maria Liatis reads it.
We all learn in school (early on!) that you don’t start every sentence of a story with the same word. We also learn that not every piece of dialogue has to be accompanied by a “he said/she said”. Well, Stina Leicht and her editors must have skipped that lesson because, oh boy, the amount of “she said” in this book is staggering. And I’m sure if I’ve read a phyiscal copy I would’t have minded so much because the brain mostly skips over these parts and doesn’t read them out each time. Maria Liatis, reading the audiobook, did however, and that reading aloud of the dialogue showed just how terrible it is. Leicht also has this quirk of ending one line of dialogue with “Angel said” and starting the next sentence with “Rosie said:” which puts two “she saids” right after each other and made me want to rip my hair out!  And don’t get me wrong, it’s not only the “she said” parts, it’s also what people say and how they say it. In case you’re worried that I’m just weird and this is a very “me” nitpick, I hear ya and I have brought examples.

“You okay, boss?” Enid asked.
“I’m good,” Angel said. “Check on Lou.”
“I’m trying,” Enid said. “The ship is a real mess.”
“Fuck,” Angel said.

That’s one lone example you say? Let me add another one and trust me, there are many more where that came from, I’m just choosing the ones that don’t contain any spoilers for the purpose of this review.

“Sukyi?” Angel asked. “Damn it! Report in!”
“Enid?” Lou asked over Kurosawa’s com system. “You ready?”
“Yes,” Enid said. “Try not to let them start another fire.”
“Doing the best I can,” Lou said.

You see, it’s not just a ridiculous amount of repetiton, it’s the exact same pattern of “word” she said “some more words”. I don’t know if that’s a stylistic choice or a matter of taste but I absolutely hated it. Sure, others may not care as much, but this took me out of the reading experience (which I can’t imagine the author wanted) and made me think about bad writing instead of the story at hand.

As for the plot, I’m sad to report it’s thin and the action sequences are badly told. Persephone is a backwater planet about which we don’t know very much. In the town Brynner lives crime boss Rosie, who runs Monk’s Bar where all the crime families gather and Rosie makes sure they behave themselves and don’t start a war among the people of Persephone. I actually liked Rosie, even though we don’t get to see enough of her!
Because of an alien POV we also know there’s an indigenous species living on Persephone. A species who will be exploited and used by Vissia Corsini, head of the evil Serrao-Orlov corporation if someone doesn’t do something against it. Vissia wants something from the alien Emmisaries that they don’t want to give so, naturally she plans to destroy them instead. Rosie has something to say about that and hires Captain Angel de la Reza and her ragtag crew to protect the Emissaries and fight against Vissia, even if going against her huge corporation is a suicide mission…
There’s also a side plot

This is marketed as a “feminist space opera” and, yes, almost all the characters are female, but I personally think there’s a little more to feminism than leaving out men and putting women or nonbinary folks everywhere. In fact, no matter what their gender, I find it most important that an author makes me care about their characters and Stina Leicht made hers unfortunately flat.
The biggest problem is that we just get to know so very little about them. The author slaps a marker on each and that’s the thing that defines their personality. Angel misses the military since she’s been kicked out, Suyki is dying of an Old Earth disease, Lou is the quirky, chipper pilot, Enid the quiet, sarcastic sniper. Rosie is the only one whose values and reasons for doing what they do came out a bit. Although their motives take a while to be fully revealed, it’s clear that their heart is in the right spot and they see the evil being done (or threatening to be done) by the powerful people of Serrao-Orlov.
And to be fe fair, you do get to know snippets of some other characters’ lives over the course of this book but mostly they are just cardboard cutouts whose hopes and dreams, whose fears and worries and plans for life remain unknown to the reader. What little we do learn is told through heavy-handed exposition. And that’s a shame because I really looked forward to falling in love with the crew of Kurosawa. I ended up liking Lou anyway because, come on, what’s not to like? She’s a super tropey character and we’ve all seen the likes of her a billion times before, but that’s just because it’s such a popular character type. I like a girl who sits in the pilot’s chair of a ship, looking at an impossible flying maneuver with her tongue sticking out between her teeth while everyone else expects to die in the next few seconds. Even if that’s all there is to her.

Another problem I had with the audiobook – and this is really audiobook only and doesn’t change my opinion of the story or characters – was the way Maria Liatis read the characters. I generally enjoyed her voice and narration but she is not good at voicing distinct characters. Which may be partially the author’s fault for making everyone talk the same way. Rosie and Enid get a slightly deeper voice and I could usually tell when they were speaking. Lou gets a slightly more high pitched excited tone, but all the others – and that leaves quite a few of them, some alien, some human – sound exactly the same. Apparently, Liatis tried to make Suyki sound distinct by giving her a case of occasional British-like accent. I swear, that accent is there one sentence and completely gone the next, sometimes it appears and dissapears within the same line of dialogue, sometimes the narrator seems to have missed a “Suyki said” while reading and accidentally not said the line with the accent… I don’t know what but it was a mess.

Now I feel bad enough for having said so many negative things about this book, so please let me share the positives! The main ideas of the plot and the characters aren’t new or original, but Stina Leicht put together some interesting themes and SFF ideas that made the world of Persephone more intriguing.
Probably most interesting to me was the way AI and AGI were incorporated into the story. The ship Kurosawa is intelligent and communicates with its crew, but much cooler than that is the  AGI Kennedy Liu whose consciousness isn’t in a ship or a computer but rather in a human body. Which is totally illegal but does give her some cool powers that regular humans (obviously) don’t have.
I also liked Angel’s Combat Assistant which can enhance her fighting by releasing adrenaline into her body, or giving her calming medication when her heart rate is too high, etc. I was a little surprised that so few characters had a CA because even without using it for battle, that seems like a very useful futuristic gadget to have. So I loved that idea but would have liked to see it incorporated more into the world.

Spending more time with – or at least learning about – the Emissaries, the indigenous species of Persephone, would have been great as well. Through some rather clunky exposition, we do learn some aspects of them and that was enough for me to like them and stand behind Rosie’s mission to protect them. Apart from the fact that humans came to their planet and now want to force this peaceful people to do things they do not wish to do, the Emissary characters we get to know better were very likable. Maybe even a tad romanticized.
But I loved little ideas like them being able to change their shape (so they can look human when talking to other humans) but generally not being human-shaped. They also communicate by smell, which I’ve never seen done before in an SFF story. Oh yeah, and they have some great abilities which I won’t spoil here but obviously the bad guys want that knowledge for themseves, which kicks off the entire meagre plot.

I think the author just took on too much for a single book. The world building has potential but we never get quite enough of any of its aspects. Rather than obsessing with diversity rap, I would have liked to get to know just a couple of characters better so I could care about them. There’s also a distinct lack of interpersonal conflict. Sure, friendships (especially among women) are wonderful, but everyone is just so damn nice all the time and these supposedly grimdark crime people always do the right thing. I never really believed that we were on a seedy underbelly type of planet and the cast are all criminals. There was no moral ambiguitiy, no tough questions to answer, no conflict. The villain is bad, everyone else is pure good and that’s that.

2021 has started as a mediocre reading year for me, but let me contrast this not-great book with the really bad one I’ve read recently. The writing, although not my cup of tea, was worlds better and if it’s to your taste, this book is very readable. For a chunky novel, I did get through it quickly enough and I will probably try another of Stina Leicht’s books. Other than Alechia Dow’s novel (The Sound of Stars was… really not good), this felt more like a book by a talented author that could just have used some more editing and a bit more flesh to its plot. I thought most of my problems were a matter of taste but other reviews are also quite mixed… So while I wouldn’t recommend The Sound of Stars to adults, especially ones who read a lot of SFF, I would still cautiously recommend Persephone Station. Maybe read a sample chapter to see if you like it first, though.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

Second opinions:

2 thoughts on “Uninspired Feminist Space Story: Stina Leicht – Persephone Station

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