A Perfect Melding of the Epic and the Intimate: E.K. Johnston’s Aetherbound

Pendt Harland, the heroine of E.K. Johnston’s new YA novel Aetherbound, has been in a terrible situation since before she knew enough to recognize her home for what it is: a cage. Growing up on the Harland, a spaceship crewed by her magic-wielding family, Pendt learns at five that she’s a waste of oxygen. She can’t use magic the way her captain needs her to; she can’t locate where they are in the vastness of space, or manipulate electricity.

It takes years for Pendt to understand that what she can do is astonishing.

Aetherbound had me by the heart in just a few chapters. It’s a book about the harm family can do, and about how one abused girl grows up and into herself—a story almost painfully intimate, told with kindness and love and compassion not just for Pendt, but for everyone who doesn’t rely on cruelty and control to get by. Pendt’s tale is set against a galactic backdrop of colonization and conquest that at first seems somewhat removed from her contained existence. But the succinct space-history lessons Johnston delivers allow us to understand what Pendt can’t: Her power is going to take her much further than the closest space station.

But first, she has to get off the Harland.

Aetherbound begins with two things: a content warning and a Carrie Fisher quote. One warns you that there’s a scene of medical violence, and that characters “obsess about food and count calories.” The other tells you, gently but firmly, that this is probably going to hurt: “Take your broken heart. Make it into art.”

Johnston describes Pendt’s existence with a delicacy that makes the horrors bearable. She’s brilliant at letting us see what Pendt lacks the context to understand—that what’s normal to her, like sleeping in a closet and being punished for small mistakes, is breathtaking cruelty. Pendt’s childhood is a series of crushing, straightforward sentences, spare descriptions that get her to age 17 with a minimum of calories and no love whatsoever. The only person who shows her something resembling kindness is the ship’s doctor, Morunt, whose sparse but thoughtful attention helps Pendt understand the magic she can never use. Like the doctor, Pendt is a gene-mage, able to see and manipulate the genes of living things. She can change a person’s body, fix their ailments, affect the development of a fetus, help plants grow steady and strong. That is, she could do these things—if she had enough to eat.

Magic takes calories. There are none to spare on the Harland, where Pendt knows everyone’s food allotment down to the gram. Her particular skill will be very valuable later, but under the ship’s viciously pragmatic captain, that “later” is a threat, and one that Pendt slowly begins to understand.

When the Harland docks at Brannick Station, Pendt makes her escape. Her plan doesn’t extend very far beyond getting off the ship, so it’s a bit of luck that her arrival gets the attention of Ned and Fisher Brannick, the young men who run the station. They live relatively comfortable lives—at least, they have all the food they could want, including plenty of cheese—but they’re also trapped. The dominating Stavenger Empire holds their parents hostage, and thanks to an ancient system of control built by the Empire’s gene-mages, that means Ned can’t leave, no matter how much he wants to fight in the rebellion. Each station is gene-locked: Someone from each station’s ruling family must always be onboard, and that person has to have a Y chromosome. If they leave, the station shuts down, killing everyone. It’s dominating patriarchy on a cruel and epic scale, and a system clearly in need of dismantling.

Ned and Fisher see in Pendt and her magic a chance to change their circumstances. What begins as a somewhat transactional relationship among the three of them shifts, gradually, in a way that changes their lives and changes the rhythms of Johnston’s book. It’s a little bit jarring, at first, when Ned and Fisher bound into Pendt’s life, but it needs to be: She has no basis for comparison for these two, their enthusiasms, their full kitchen, their love for each other. On the Harland, her family calls her “little cat” dismissively; cats are useless on a spaceship. But it suits in other ways. She’s skittish and uncertain of herself around other people, used to being self-sufficient and left alone. As she gets comfortable with the Brannicks and they grow closer, their goals also start to converge—and Pendt’s gene-magic, honed by her work in station hydroponics, is key to everyone getting what they want.

Aetherbound, despite the cruelties of Pendt’s childhood, is a cozy book in many ways, a story determinedly hopeful about people’s ability to build a better world for themselves and each other. It has a bit in common with Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet; both novels set a personal story against the enormity of space, and focus on “found families, built families, communities, and the importance of compassion, empathy, and respect for other people’s autonomy and choices in moving through the world,” as Liz Bourke perfectly described Chambers’ novel. There are also graceful parallels to Johnston’s Star Wars: Ahsoka, which also follows a heroine who needs to forge a new life for herself, and who finds meaning in helping others.

“Small” is the wrong word for a book that packs in the history of the Stavenger Empire; the collapse of a major food source; a thoughtful consideration of the ethics of gene-magic; a nuanced view of gender identity and bodily autonomy; and meticulously structured worldbuilding. Aetherbound is an epic space opera where the “epic” part is just offscreen, in the form of a rebellion that just begins to set foot on the page. But though the galaxy is vast and the empire needs topping, Pendt is just one girl—and one who needs to understand herself before she can play a part in what’s to come. Johnston’s book gives her time to grow and learn and transform, turning the very thing that was used against her—her gene-magic—into strength. This is, in short, a book for anyone who’s ever underestimated themself, and who had to find their people to figure out their power.

Aetherbound is available from Dutton Books.

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. You can also find her on Twitter.

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