Ascension is a sci-fi novel that shines a spotlight on characters whom you might not encounter in novels very often. Author Jacqueline Koyanagi wanted to write a story featuring people like herself and her friends, and so in Ascension we are introduced to some very strong and smart women (and a man) who might be living with physical disability, and/or have different skin, and/or be gay, and/or who might be involved in open relationships. While this is a refreshing change, and timely as many of us are being introduced to intersectional feminism, the bottom line is that Koyanagi has written a fun, fast-paced tale about power structures, relationships and the necessity of living the life one chooses for oneself, even if it gets messy and hurts sometimes.
The main character and narrator is Alana Quick. She and her aunt Lai are “surgeons,” which is to say they are starship mechanics. These are smart women, engineers, who get dirty and wear their status in their hair. Surgeons generally are marked by their dreadlocks. Times are tough on the planet Orpim. There isn’t much work any more as the Transliminal corporation, a shadowy economic and political power, replaces much of the old time tech with their mysterious otherworldly “dark energy” tech. As if that weren’t bad enough, both Alana and Lai suffer from a debilitating illness known as Mel’s disease, which, if left unmedicated, leaves them in terrific pain. The medication to treat it, developed by Transliminal, is expensive, but Mel’s disease will ultimately kill the women if they do not get it. Alana loves being a surgeon; it seems to be hardwired into her. She can feel where a ship is hurting and make it better. She has no desire to take up other work. In fact, what she would love most is to become a ship’s mechanic and fly throughout space. An opportunity presents itself unexpectedly one evening when Lai is out at her second job. A beautifully maintained older starship arrives. Mel can practically hear the ship speaking to her, but the crew is not interested in her surgeon skills. They are looking for Alana’s sister Nova, a well known and much sought spiritual guide who doesn’t wish to be found. Alana stows away on the ship and becomes entangled in the crews’ relationships and in political danger.
The crew of the ship, the Tangled Axon, is small and tightly knit. The ship’s medical officer, Slip, gave Alana the chance to hide in the cargo hold. She is the friendliest toward Alana at first. The ship’s surgeon Ovie is resentful. He is a large, wolffish fellow who doesn’t want Alana’s help. The pilot Marre is unlike anyone Alana has ever seen. Her body seems to fade in and out, showing what’s beneath the skin, muscle, bone, etc. Marre speaks very little and has the uncanny ability to show up when unexpected. And finally, there is the ship’s captain Tev Helix — a fair and strikingly beautiful woman who is initially angered by Alana’s presence, but then decides she can use Alana as bait to get Nova. Alana is attracted to Tev, and as Alana proves her worth, she feels that Tev might be attracted to her, too, except it seems Tev and Slip have some kind of relationship. Alana’s situation is further complicated by the arrival of Nova. The two sisters have fallen out as they’ve grown up. Alana feels that Nova is very judgmental of her mechanic’s lifestyle, disappointed that Alana didn’t choose to do something better with her life as Nova did. But what Koyanagi shows us throughout the novel and through its characters’ relationships is that powerful love often involves deep fear for the safety of another. That protectiveness rooted in love is at the heart of the story and feeds into other story lines as well. How far can one or should one go to protect another? At what point do you back off and let difficulties happen?
Another relationship-related issue that appears throughout the novel has to do with balancing one’s personal calling with relationships. Alana admits that she loves her work so much, she could never sacrifice it for a relationship. Being a surgeon is her calling, her passion. For Tev, being the captain of her ship is her passion. This is the sort of thing that can destroy relationships, so is it possible to make it work? To strike a balance?
Koyanagi also introduces some non-typical relationships among her characters. Traditional relationships don’t work for everyone, and the complex relationships among crew members often leave Alana feeling left out. Several characters struggle with watching someone they love suffer. Tev is desperate to get help for Marre but their relationship is mysterious. Nova frets over Alana because of her disease but also because of the work she has chosen, which is not secure or guaranteed. As a result of their time together, Nova comes to appreciate that Alana’s work is part of who she is, as Nova’s is part of her. When Alana sees a young girl who wants to become a surgeon, she wonders if she should tell the girl not to since there isn’t much work out there. But then Alana thinks:
She deserved the chance to make her choices, to carve out whatever life she wanted, even if it meant that life was threaded with struggles.
If there is a moral to this story, that just might be it.
Koyanagi gives the reader some thrilling plot twists and great action sequences, particularly toward the end of the novel. The characters become renegades and race against time to get help for Marre and save the ship while figuring out exactly what Transliminal is and preparing to confront it. If you liked Firefly or Ann Leckie’s novels, then Ascension would appeal to you.