Queer Pining and a Reckoning of Empire: Emily Skrutskie’s Bonds of Brass

The propulsive first book in Emily Skrutskie’s Bloodright trilogy, Bonds of Brass is an action-packed, incisively clever, and unapologetically queer space opera. Skrutskie balances burgeoning galaxy-wide revolution with deliciously tender pining to craft a page-turning adventure simmering with slow-burn romance and an indictment of empire.

In the far reaches of space, the Umber Empire is thriving at the expense of its colonized systems. Ettian Nassun was born in the Archon Empire, but lost his family and his way of life to the vicious war Umber brought to his home. It’s been seven years since the Archon Empire fell to Umber rule. When the Umber Imperial Academy recruited him after his initial brutal, starving years on the streets, Ettian had no choice but to crush down who he was and train to be a pilot for the very empire that cost him everything. Two years in, he’s done his very best to quash the ancient Archon rhythm pulsing in him, the lifeblood of his people. He has to survive, and that’s what Umber has offered him. His life in the Imperial Academy also has another appeal: his gorgeous Umber-born roommate and best friend, Gal.

Other Archon recruits don’t take to life serving their colonizer so readily, and Ettian finds himself caught in an assassination plot between his own people—and Gal, when it turns out his best friend isn’t merely highborn Umber, but the very heir to Umber itself, the next in line for the empire. And in that moment, Ettian chooses Gal.

This choice propels the two of them into a series of adventures through the star systems. Gal says he needs to survive to come of age and take the throne, to undo the crimes of his parents and remake the empire into something better—to work towards peace. Ettian believes him. But when they stumble into a larger, deep-seated Archon rebellion, the stakes skyrocket, and Ettian must struggle to reconcile the many wants of his heart.

Along the way, they encounter Wen Iffan: sixteen-year-old street-smart badass, on the run with a half-burned face and a bladed rainbow umbrella. She shares elements of Ettian’s traumatic history that Gal never could, and brings truths that Ettian doesn’t want to confront into the uncomfortable light. Skrutskie ensures that Wen’s never a third wheel though, she’s a protagonist in her own right, and one of the coolest, savviest girls to strut the skies.

There are two tightly intersecting arcs at work. There’s Ettian’s uneasy, shifting allegiances for the ashes of the empire that forsook him, versus the empire that took everything from him and remade him. And, inextricably intertwined, there’s his burgeoning attraction for Gal, which isn’t as unrequited as he expected, and far more complicated than he ever could have imagined.

Skrutskie hits fandom favorites as Gal and Ettian navigate both a rebellion and their feelings for each other: there was only one bed! Fake dating while pining! Witty banter! All of these are executed gorgeously in this vivid starlit setting, with the weight of empires pressing in at all sides. There are moments of near-revelation and almost-kisses that many queer readers are going to find incredibly vindicating, not only to see queer desire explored openly on the page, but to witness it woven into a sci fi space opera. Hell yes, we get to go to space and fight empires for peace, while also being absolute disaster queers.

Skrutskie balances this joyous queer will-they-won’t-they with a thoughtful interrogation of the far-reaching casualties of empire and the complexities of revolution. Are Gal’s goals idealistic, or can a violent empire be changed from within, by the very heir of its atrocities? How can a person or a people use their privilege to atone for the crimes of their parents and their ancestors—how can we rebuild a system salvaged from the remnants of empire? Gal and Ettian must wrestle with these crucial concepts and their far-reaching consequences, while also navigating how the dynamic between them can progress as they discover more tangled truths about themselves and each other. Can love flourish within the uncertain intricacies of uprising?

Bonds of Brass is full of gloriously, believably messy characters making questionable choices as they struggle to determine what’s right, and how best to fight for it. Everyone has lies and secrets in this fast-paced adventure, brimming with taut action and truly surprising twists. Skrutskie’s vivid, dynamic prose carries Ettian and Gal through their far-reaching exploits, and delves into the tender complexities of their undeniable attraction and tenuous trust. Bonds of Brass runs deep, and brims with clever, compelling fun. Star Wars fans will definitely find a lot to love here, but Skrutskie steadfastly weaves a universe of mythology in her own right, with an even more intimate, interpersonal investigation of empire. This is an adult novel, but with young characters and definite crossover appeal to YA fans, and unlike the Star Wars films, it centers canonically queer people of color. Readers will come away from Bonds of Brass hungry for the sequel, eager to know what the next chapter holds for the star-crossed pilot and his secret prince—though the ending will give us lots to ponder in the meantime!

Bonds of Brass is available from Del Rey.
Read an excerpt here.

Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.

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