It’s not every day you read a space opera novel featuring a queer woman of colour who stows away on a starship. Still less often do you read a space opera novel that includes a main character who suffers from a chronic illness while not being about the illness, or one which includes respectful, negotiated polyamorous relationships.
A novel which embraces all these things? It might not be unprecedented, but it’s pretty damn rare.
Ascension, Jacqueline Koyanagi’s debut novel, is just that rare thing. Its diversity—its perspective—is not one we see very often, and played a large part in how much I enjoyed it. Before I make any further comment, I want to state that right up front: I enjoyed this book a hell of a lot. (It’s not Ancillary Justice, but not every debut can hit that high.) But my enjoyment aside, as a novel Ascension is structurally odd, makes some unusual choices, and has a number of first-novel flaws.
Alana Quick is a sky surgeon, an engineer barely making ends meet in the repair shop she runs with her aunt. But she dreams of space, and when a ship, the Tangled Axon, arrives looking for Alana’s wealthy Spirit Guide sister Nova, she stows away in the hopes that they’ll keep her on in a berth. The Tangled Axon needs Alana’s sister in order to negotiate with Transluminal Solutions, the giant, powerful corporation from another dimension that has gradually been taking over the galactic neighbourhood. Transluminal Solutions are the only people who might have a cure for the strange affliction that is slowly killing the Axon’s pilot. But Nova isn’t interested in dealing with Transluminal Solutions at all, and instead of a simple job, Alana finds herself in the middle of desperate derring-do: first half a hostage, then a fugitive when the crew of the Tangled Axon are framed for genocide.
And that’s before she starts falling in love with the Axon’s captain, who already has a lover. It’s a situation fraught with a great deal of potential awkwardness, to say the least. An awkwardness not helped for Alana in the least by the fact that the Axon’s crew takes strangeness—like a pilot who fades in and out of view and an engineer who behaves like a wolf—for granted.
With its transdimensional commerce and spirit guides who directly manipulate the energies of the universe, Ascension bears a debt to the deep vein of fantasy that runs through science fiction. Its mode is space opera, light on the techsposition and heavy on atmosphere. On mature consideration, it owes as much or more to the influence of popular televisual science fiction as it does to the literary kind: we can see the echo of Star Wars’s Force and Stargate’s ascended beings, and perhaps especially Firefly’s misfit crew of down-on-their-luck semi-outlaws, struggling to get by in a frontier universe where establishment interests are always a hair’s breadth from chewing them to pieces.
The effect of televisual influence is both structural and tonal. This makes for an odd reading experience, in terms of the peaks and troughs of the narrative’s driving tension; the pacing of the emotional beats in particular seems more suited to the screen than the page. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but it can be a little disconcerting, and make the narrative’s progress feel a bit out of joint.
The novel’s climax, on the other hand, is more than a little disconcerting. Doppelgangers, family drama, transdimensional travel, and the science-fictional equivalent of grand sorcery all come together, climax, resolution, and denouement within the same forty pages. It feels compressed to the point of confusion, as though Koyanagi ran out of either the space or the confidence to wrap up her story in anything less than a headlong rush. A little more signposting earlier in the narrative wouldn’t have gone amiss: one doesn’t really expect Evil Alternate Universe Doppelganger to only show up at the very end and be overcome within a handful of pages.
On the other hand, I might be biased, because I’m not that great a fan of doppelgangers in the first place.
Koyanagi has a knack for voice and character, even if her prose can at times verge on the rococo. For all its flaws, Ascension is a fun read for the most part, and one that has space among the stars for a wider variety of people than your average space opera. On the whole, I’m glad to see her debut in print, and I look forward with interest to watching her improve on it.
Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter. She would like to note that she read slush for Masque Books, the imprint which published Ascension, but did not see Koyanagi’s book until it was made available for review.