I used to be a huge science fiction geek. Asimov broke my damn brain. But after a while, it started to feel like a lot of the same thing, and that thing was pretty superficial. It feels like most authors writing in science fiction are most interested in the action than what drives the action, which in my mind at least is not at all what makes science fiction interesting. This book is not scant on action in the least, but it deftly weaves worldbuilding, character development, and brace yourselves, actual plot.
Plot: Humanity has successfully populated the stars, only to screw them up as badly as we did earth. Fortunately, genetic engineering had advanced enough that they could not only created genetically engineered humans, but to genetically modify people so much that they ceased to be human at all. Enter Homo Superior, our new supreme rulers. They are stronger, faster, smarter, live longer, have developed redundant breathing valves so you don’t eat and breath out of the same hole like an idiot, and other fun and exciting improvements on Homo sapiens. Much like with our predecessors though, our times are overlapping, and the conflict is fierce. After a war which the superhumans handily won, they took over all governance, prohibiting Homo sapiens (even modified ones), from having any power at all. Incidentally, something is also causing huge numbers of Homo sapiens to be born with defects ranging from chemical imbalances in the brain to Kronenbourgian horrors. Enter Clevon Demarco, a genetically modified Homo sapien that has lived his entire life on a space station equivalent of a ghetto. You’re not allowed to leave, you’re not allowed to improve yourself, and most people get by selling extremely dangerous drugs to their fellow miserable, hopeless people. When we meet him, he is very quickly arrested for various crimes by a team of Enforcers – basically militias that travel the galaxy offering their services to governments in need. Leading them is Commodore Endellion Voight, who offers him the choice of Horrible Prison Planet or working for her. He’d get to travel, get to do something other than Crime, and support her in her quest to become the first human planetary governor since humans lost the war. Shenanigans ensue.
So reading this premise, you might think to yourself that this concept is not at all novel, bordering on overdone, and I would enthusiastically agree with you. So much of science fiction these days seems to be about how humans are bad, but hey everyone else is also bad. The real problem with them though, is that they don’t really say very much. For example, I would have told you that I was completely, beyond sick of anything to do with superheroes probably back at the second Thor movie. And then Logan came out and blew my whole brain with its perfection. This is that for science fiction exploring the next stage of human evolution. Yes, that is high praise.
I don’t want this review to go too long, so I want to just hit a few of the highlights of what makes this book (the first in a trilogy the rest of which has not been published, I regret to inform you) work for me.
Science fiction inherently requires exposition. If you’re building a brand new world with different systems of government, a history, and rules of conduct, if you do all of it by showing and not telling, your book is going to be longer than War and Peace and I don’t think it would benefit from the length, because not all of that information is all that interesting, even if it is important. Stovall does a fantastic job of showing as much as possible, and telling you the remainder only when you need it. Even then, exposition is often woven into the story in a way that still makes it feel like part of the narrative. It does put me in the mind of Asimov in terms of balancing information with story, though story wins out here more than in Asimov’s work.
Plot twists that actually surprise, but don’t trick! This is a huge pet peeve of mine. It seems like so much of plot-driven writing falls into one of two categories: (1) painfully obvious twists and (2) twists you could never have seen coming because the reader didn’t get to have enough of the pieces of the puzzle until the author was ready to reveal the whole thing. Neither are fun. Stovall managed to surprise me over and over again, and each time, there’d been breadcrumbs she laid down that I was too absorbed in the story to quickly unravel. In the last act there are so many of them and they’re all earned. I can’t tell you how much I love that.
Three dimensional characters. I don’t even mean just three dimensional in that you can imagine them living a life outside of the pages of the book, but three dimensional in the sense of them having complex moral centers that create ethical questions that don’t have easy answers (despite what a lot of goodreads reviewers would have you believe). Characters have clear motivations, have lived experiences that don’t only inform who they are now but how they will act, and ALSO meaningful, earned growth. Can you ask for anything more?
Yes you can. Ya’ll, this book is queer as hell. Clevon is decidedly poly, and there are multiple characters along the Kinsey scale. This is not played up at all. The same is true of racial diversity. Stovall takes the approach of limiting physical descriptors to what is absolutely necessary for the plot and instead makes the racial diversity clear through name choices. There is also, and this is so rare, diversity in ability. The “defective” humans, the bottom of the social rung, are not simply a throwaway idea so you can imagine a bunch of mutilated bodies for shock value. The book meaningfully engages with what it means to be “defective” and questions our own conceptions of ability. Love. LOVE.
Content warnings: as with most science fiction, most triggering things are at least touched on, but if you read science fiction regularly, you’re probably fine.
This became too long anyway. If all of this did not sell you on this book, how about this: it’s on Kindle Unlimited. Run, don’t walk.