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.
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.
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.
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!
- Book Review: Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jacqueline Koyanagi (thebooksmugglers.com)
- A Rare Space Opera: Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (Liz Bourke, tor.com)
- Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jacqueline Koyanagi (staffersbookreview.com)
- Review of Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (A Dribble of Ink, aidanmoher.com)
- Special Needs in Strange Worlds: An Interview with Jacqueline Koyanagi, author of Ascension (sfsignal.com)
- Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension (sfsignal.com)