I have no idea who Lindsay Ellis is, so I picked this up solely based on the blurb. I have a definite soft spot for first contact stories, especially ones where the humans involved are not, well, exactly who you’d pick to represent humanity.
“Truth is not freely given in our society; it must be taken. Where walls are built, tear them down. Where borders are drawn, erase the line. Where you see wax, break the seal.
Truth is a human right.”
It’s 2007, and amidst a flurry of revelations that the American government has been holding aliens captive for years, an unidentified object crashes near LA. The alien’s mission, he soon discovers, requires a human to help him navigate society. The person he choses to act as his interpreter is Cora, a college dropout who’s the estranged daughter of the conspiracy theorist rabbling-rousing man who’s releasing secret government files detailing the existence of aliens. Of course, we see this all from Cora’s point of view, so it takes a while to find out that Ampersand, the government codename the alien adopts, is there to rescue those captive aliens. But everyone’s keeping secrets from Cora – Ampersand, the government, her own family. And while she hates to agree with her father, truth and transparency are necessary if she hopes to survive what’s coming.
“She was determined to give Kaplan what he wanted, not out of fear for herself, or her family, nor even out of love for species or country but out of spite.”
Each chapter starts with a blog post or article about the government cover-up, giving a general overview of what’s going on in the world in general as the book progresses. I didn’t find them particularly interesting, other than as confirmation that Cora’s dad is a jerk. The part where I think this book fails is when it tries to deal with the greater world, especially in terms of Cora’s estranged father Nils. It initially seems like he’ll play a big part in the book and then he just… doesn’t. Which is, in its own way, telling in terms of his and Cora’s relationship. While the safety of Cora’s family is one of the things held over her head, they play a surprisingly small part, and the other characters, like Sol Kaplan the FBI agent, are pretty thin characters.
“Looking into his eyes was like looking into ten billion years of history, like she could see the particles and rocks and gases coalesce over eons, until somehow, impossibly, here they both were.”
Where this book excels is in the small-scale depiction of alien contact, specifically between Cora and Ampersand. Cora’s initial horror movie heroine reaction to him morphs as she realizes he’s just as terrified as she is. For all the fact that the Fremda are obviously more advanced technologically, a planet full of violent, meat-eating humans has its own horrors to them. Trusting each other – that Ampersand won’t attempt to mind control Cora, that Cora won’t get hungry and decide to eat Ampersand – is a slow process and one that I think was well done. There’s a few scenes where Ampersand attempts to “care” for Cora that were pretty hilarious to me, and then one, where Cora plays her guitar for him, that was actually quite sweet. There’s some vaguely romantic feelings on Cora’s side, which I’m honestly not sure how I feel about. It felt a bit more like her latching on to the closest being that gave her any attention rather than love, but I suppose we’ll see how that pans out in the next book.
“She’d been privy to information given to no other human in history, and she hadn’t even scratched the surface of all there was to know. She could rationalize it as a selfless, necessary act all she wanted, but it wasn’t the truth.
She wanted to know more.”
As for the bigger issues, there’s a lot of interesting talk about what will happen when the two continue to try to interact and coexist despite their basic incompatibilities, and about the pitfalls of anthropomorphizing aliens, as Cora learns painfully, as well as quite a bit about genocide, cultural superiority, and caste. The ideas, as well as some mid-book info dumping about their language and culture, are interesting, but it’s not explored as fully as I’d like.
The pacing is also very uneven. While the last quarter or so of the book is extremely action-packed, the rest of it fumbles. There’s the general “Cora’s family in danger!” suspense (which doesn’t work very well as she frequently seems to forget about them) and then also a sort of threat in the undefined future which the aliens don’t provide much information on initially. Perhaps this was supposed to add some unknown menacing air, but it just left me wondering what Ampersand was so worked up about. But despite all that, it’s a very readable book, with fairly simplistic prose, and I liked Cora in all her “what the heck am I even doing???” confusion.
Overall, 3.5 stars, rounding up.