Thank you, Hugo nominators, for pushing this series onto me! I have said this quite a few times in the last months because I am genuinely grateful for the wonderful books I’ve discovered this year due to the Hugo Awards. People have been raving about Emma Newman’s Planetfall series for years but because her fairy-inspired series didn’t work that well for me, I’ve been hesitant to pick up another book by her. Boy, was I stupid! This is one of the finest science fiction books I’ve read and it also does something I’ve never encountered before: combining science fiction with all its tech and (potential) alien life with a very human protagonist who deals with mental health issues.
by Emma Newman
Published: Roc, 2015
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: Planetfall #1
My rating: 8/10
Opening line: Every time I come down here I think about my mother.
From the award-nominated author Emma Newman, comes a novel of how one secret withheld to protect humanity’s future might be its undoing…
Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.
More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.
Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.
The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…
Renata Ghali, called Ren, lives in the only space colony on a planet far from Earth. She and the other settlers came here on the ship Atlas because they were following a genius named Lee Suh-Mi who was looking for God. That may sound super religious but the book is really not. In fact, we know right from the start that the things most colonists believe aren’t true. Religious rituals are firmly in place but Ren and Mack – the Ringmaster and kind of, sort of leader of this place – know what’s what. Finding out the details of what exactly these two are hiding from the rest of the colony and why is one reason this book was so intriguing. But that’s not all there is to it.
The story kicks off with a new arrival to the colony. There shouldn’t be any humans left alive who aren’t already part of the colony, so naturally Ren and Mack are worried. Who is this person that looks so much like Suh but couldn’t possibly have survived out in the wild, far from the technology that keeps the colony going? It turns out this person is, in fact, Suh’s own grandson Sung-Soo, the only survivor of a group that apparently landed far away from what has become the human colony at the foot of God’s City. Oh yeah, I haven’t even mentioned that part. Just outisde the colony, an alien “building” looms, made of tentrils and organic-seeming matter, filled with corridors and secrets… This is believed to be God’s City and it’s where a big ritual is held every year that keeps the colony in touch with the now almost mystical Suh.
Throughout this novel, we follow Ren, who suffers from anxiety and who also has a secret or two. Ren is such a fantastic character, not only because she represents people who don’t often get to be the hero in a science fiction story but also because she is flawed but her flaws are understandable. She constantly feels guilty about the past (you’ll find out all the details about that), she has trouble letting go of things and people, she is a very private person with few – if any – close relationships. It is strongly suggested that Ren, a brilliant engineer responsible for the colony’s 3D-printers, was in love with Suh and followed her on this mission to find God for reasons other than pure logic. She also had a relationship with one of the colony’s doctors, Kay, that didn’t last because Ren just wouldn’t open up. She just felt like such a real, complicated person that can’t be described in a few lines, and that’s exactly how I like my protagonists best!
There’s a lot more going on in this book and I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. I’ve given you headlines, hints of what’s to come, but reading this and discovering all of it for yourself is so much fun! And let’s not forget that amazing surprising moment around the middle of the book. Ren deals with social anxiety and that much is clear from the start. But she is dealing with much more than that and the way this was revealed showed just how much skill Emma Newman possesses as a writer. Without naming the thing, without explicitly describing it, she nonetheless made it clear for the reader what is going on, what Ren has been hiding for years and years, and I was stunned and impressed and deeply unsettled. I can’t tell you more than that without spoiling and, trust me, you want to experience this for yourselves.
Emma Newman manages to weave her themes into a thrilling plot with so much ease, I almost didn’t recognize her writing from her other books. This book deals with guilt, anxiety, the way society works, religious fanaticism, technology, living in tune with nature, and so much more! Again, I can’t tell you any more details without spoiling things, but this book is an example of how to advance plot, world building, and characters all at the same time. There are no info dumps, no lengthy expositions, everything just happens organically and everything the readers learn, we learn through context.
The plot is pretty fast paced for a novel that also focuses so much on Ren’s feelings. Things are always happening, there is this underlying sense of tension that turned this into a proper page turner. Which is another thing I don’t come across that often. A book that’s both exciting because our protagonists are in danger, but still has enough time for introspection, for developing those characters, for making them come to life and having them grow. I found the side characters just as interesting as Ren herself but this story is clearly her journey.
The ending may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it brings Ren’s character arc to a beautiful and satsifying close. Had I read this when it came out, I might have liked it less because the ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But knowing this is only the beginning of a loosely connected series, I’m perfectly fine with the way things ended here. I also won’t be able to wait very long to dive into the next book, After Atlas. Newman has created a fascinating world, peopled with diverse characters that all feel real. I’m sure there is plenty more to discover and I look forward to going into the next book completely blind. Is it a prequel or a sequel? Do we meet characters we’ve heard about? I don’t know and I don’t care. Emma Newman has a new fan and I trust that I’ll love the next book as much as this one.
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!