Jacqueline Koyanagi – Ascension

I’m having a good luck streak. So far, every book I’ve read this year has at least been good, but considering this is only the sixth story I read in 2014, there have been many outstanding ones. Ascension belongs on that list. This book does so many things right and gave me that Firefly-esque warm feeling in my belly of stepping onto a fictional space ship and coming home.

ascensionASCENSION
by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Published by: Prime Books, 2013
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Tangled Axon #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Heat buffeted my face, whipping my locs behind me.

Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything–even destroying planets–to get their hands on her.

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Space Opera is an interesting subgenre, though not one famed for its diverse characters, its space-faring queer, disabled, polygamous, engineer women – or so I hear. Ascension presents a crew made up of some very underrepresented groups and I loved every single one of them.

Alana Quick is a sky surgeon (read: spaceship engineer) who has never left her home planet but dreams of the Big Black, of serving on a ship, going places in the universe, and not having to worry about the next job. She doesn’t just need the money for rent and food but also – even more – to pay medical bills.

If this novel has a theme, it is how oppressive a disease can be, especially an invisible one. Alana doesn’t seem sick but she knows that without her medication, her body will slowly wither away, her muscles will betray her until they stop functioning altogether. That’s a heavy load to carry around and I’m glad to say I have no experience with anything like that. I could ramble on about how brave Alana is and how she doesn’t let the disease take over her life. But honestly, I believe if I suffered from something as severe, I would go to pieces and I wouldn’t want people to judge me for it. More power to her for being as strong as she is, but I would have liked her every bit as much if she had wallowed in self-pity every once in a while.

Alana isn’t the only one with a medical condition. Take Marre, the Tangled Axon‘s pilot, whose body fades in and out of reality as she slowly, literally, is losing parts of herself. Captain Tev Helix lost a leg in an accident, the ship’s engineer thinks he’s a wolf and Alana’s sister Nova, while not considered ill in the context of the novel, is starving herself in order to reach the next spiritual level. Let’s just say these characters each have a life and backstory of their own. None of them are defined by their disease (maybe Marre, a little bit) and all of them show us page after page that not being “whole”, by society’s standards, doesn’t keep them from living their lives.

Now while you could say the plot is pretty straight-forward and not exactly original – Alana gets onto the Tangled Axon, bad stuff happens, the crew gets framed for it and is on the run, trying to figure out how to save their hides – this book isn’t about what happens, it’s about who it happens to and how these characters act in the situations they’re thrown into. Sure, dangerous situations arise and things go boom, and these moments are thrilling, but they aren’t what makes the novel great. Getting to know the characters and seeing them grow as people and grow closer together as a crew, that’s what did it for me.

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The book blurb gives away that there is romance on the Tangled Axon. I loved the romantic (read: steamy) scenes but I found some of the set-up a bit silly. For example, if you have the hots for a woman, and you’re already kissing her and telling her how badly you want her, why would you not also tell her some other vital information that may help her not feel like a piece of shit after kissing you? In general, Tev withholds pieces of information for no reason that I can see, that would have helped Alana understand better why the crew are the way they are. Oh well, it’s a small thing to nitpick.

But as much as Alana is falling for her new captain, the real romance is her love affair with the ship. The way Koyanagi describes Alana’s connection to this vessel read like a proper love story. The last time I read of such a beautiful love story between a human and a thing was in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy (and those ships were actually alive, so it’s not quite the same). She feels the ship’s pain, she hears its humming, she loves every metal plate, every cable, every fiber of it. Koyanagi also shows off her best writing in the scenes describing Alana’s feelings about the Tangled Axon, going from simple language to almost poetic.

My biggest qualms are all about the ending. “Rushed” doesn’t begin to describe it. So much was crammed in last second, crazy things were revealed as if they meant nothing – they’re not all game changers but still, a bit of build-up wouldn’t have hurt – and the things Tev had been holding back came out all at once. There is a bit of an overload at the end that I would have preferred to see drawn out a bit or even cut completely. I was especially sad about the way Nova’s character arc was handled. She became one of my favorites in the book (I hated her at first, then ended up totally rooting for her) and to see her storyline done with in such a hurried way just sold her entire character short.

But there is something to be said about a book that tells the stories of an almost entirely female cast, of a ship’s crew that – while vastly different – reminded me of Serenity, in the way they stuck together as a team. I loved that a queer woman who has to think about getting her medication on time every single day, gets to be the heroine of this tale, I love how much depth even minor characters had, and if the future holds more stories for the Tangled Axon (pretty please?), I’ll be among its first readers.

RATING: 8/10  –  Excellent!

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Nnedi Okorafor – Kabu-Kabu

Making a resolution to read more diversely, to discover authors from places other than Europe or North America, is one thing. Actually discovering them is another story. I didn’t think I would be this glad to read fantasy by writers from different places of the world. But Nnedi Okorafor swept me away with the amazing Who Fears Death and, while very different from that novel, the short stories in Kabu-Kabu have cemented my appreciation for her as a writer.

kabu kabuKABU-KABU
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Prime Books, October 2013
ISBN: 160701405X
ebook: 264 pages
Short story collection
review copy via NetGalley
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Lance the Brave stood on the edge of the cliff panicking, his long blond hair blowing in the breeze.

Kabu Kabu – unregistered, illegal Nigerian taxis – generally get you where you need to go, but Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu Kabu takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations. This debut short story collection by award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor includes notable previously-published short work, a new novella co-written with New York Times bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, and a brief forward by Whoopi Goldberg.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about the danger of the single story still rings in my ears every time I read a book or story featuring a non-white protagonist. This collection by Nnedi Okorafor – go read the beautiful Who Fears Death – is the exact opposite of the “single story”. The range and diversity of these short stories is like a breath of fresh air. Given Okorafor’s own background, most stories feature Nigerians, but not exclusively. Some are set in Nigeria, some in America, some in completely different places. Most of her protagonists are women, but again, they are as diverse and different as they come.

But Okorafor doesn’t romanticize Nigeria either. The tales in this collection show off a range of situations and settings, many aspects of culture and character. You will find folktale-like stories without a clear setting or time, intentionally flat characters, and horrific plots, you will find others that are clearly set during modern times, showing all the wonders and horrors of Okorafor’s chosen locations. I’ve mentioned Nigeria a lot, but it isn’t the only place featured in these stories. Just the one that she keeps coming back to.

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The author’s favorite topics clearly shine through. Nigeria is one of them, windseekers another. There are not two, but three tales about windseekers, two of which tell essentially the same story. I felt a little cheated and, honestly, it gave the impression that the author’s ideas are quite limited (or that she is really obsessed with windseekers) – she also wrote a novel called Zahrah the Windseeker (which I have yet to read). In all fairness, the third of the windseeker stories, simply called “Windseekers”, did show a different side of these people, born with dada hair and the ability to fly, and I ended up liking that one best.

Of all the stories, “Spider the Artist” was easily my favorite. It is not only a great science fiction short story but would make a brilliant beginning for a novel. A young and unhappily married woman sits next to the pipeline at night and plays music. She ends up befriending one of the terrifying, robotic creatures who protect the pipeline from thieves and bond with it over their shared music. I loved every bit of this story and wouldn’t mind reading what happened after…

In “The Black Stain”, the author changes her tone to that of a cautionary tale. There is little characterisation, events happen quickly, but their repercussions leave you thinking about the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on others. It is a sort of fairy-tale like origin story of Ewu, children of mixed race, who are considered demons, and another one of Okorafor’s favorite themes, seeing as Onyesonwu, the protagonist in Who Fears Death, is Ewu.

The titular story “Kabu-Kabu” was co-written with Alan Dean Foster. It is the story of a lawyer named Ngozi trying to catch a plane to go to her sister’s wedding in Nigeria. Late as she is, she jumps into a kabu kabu, a taxi that shows up out of the blue and whose driver promises to get her where she needs to go… there are just a few errands he has to run first. This story did so many things so well. Ngozi is a wonderfully relatable protagonist who mostly just asks herself WTF? The fact that she meets curious creatures and isn’t sure if she can trust her taxi driver is just a complication in a fun story with a slightly predictable ending.

kabu kabu plate

As with any collection, not all stories were up my alley, and some I didn’t like at all. The bulk of them were great, although I do think short stories are not the author’s strength. Nnedi Okorafor is definitely trying to make a point with this collection. In the afterword she tells the origin of her story “The Magical Negro” and I understand that she wants her readers to see that being branded magical or exotic or barbaric is not something Africans enjoy – yet it still happens all too often in SFF fiction. But perhaps she is trying to get that point across too hard. By no means did this happen in every story, but every so often, I would feel like the author was standing behind me, looking over my shoulder to see if I understood what she’s telling me about race and gender. Yes yes, I get it! I’m on your side! Stop hitting me over the head with the morality hammer already!

I picked the book up because I absolutely loved Who Fears Death. It fits neatly into my Read Around the World challenge, and I honestly think that I learned tons of new things and broadened my horizons – even if a lot of the stories took place in imaginary or alternate settings, not the real world. Okorafor shows the good and the bad, both exploitation and hope, strength and evil of the people. And she adds a healthy dose of magic to the mix.

Recommended, although I personally look forward to cozying up with one of Okorafor’s novels again.

MY RATING:  7/10  – Very Good!

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