“This isn’t justice. This is just the same thing over and over.”
It’s rare to find an author who writes across genres to equal success, but Emily Tesh is that author. As a huge fan of the nature-rich prose and tenderness of her Greenhollow novella duology, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Some Desperate Glory, a hefty space opera.
What I got was one of my favorite books of all time.
I wouldn’t hesitate to call this one of the definitive sci-fi novels of the year. Tesh is undeniably a versatile talent, and she translates her trademark ache and heart to an interstellar epic with effortless elegance. This is space fantasy that’s expertly true to form while also fundamentally critical of its mainstream ethos. Her thoroughly imagined worldbuilding interrogates the myths of western excellence and human superiority, the warmongering that defines our eras, and how easily we slip into factions of well-intentioned, ill-advised morality. Some Desperate Glory is a nuanced, accessible odyssey of deeply personal revolution and the half-thankless work of hope.
Kyr is one of the best soldiers of her year on Gaea Station. She’s a warbreed, genetically engineered to develop with the best physical attributes to avenge Earth after it was murdered by the alien species known as majoda. Along with everyone else on Gaea, Kyr’s devoted to destroying the majoda. Gaea decries the humans who’ve made peaceful homes for themselves on the colony planet Chyrosothemis as cowards and traitors. The majoda have a reality-altering weapon known as the Wisdom, and humans lost to it once. Kyr has committed her life to ensuring it doesn’t happen again, even if it means everyone in her mess loathes her ruthless adherence to Gaea’s protocols. Everyone on Gaea is raised in competition to become the perfect warriors for Earth’s defense, though few Kyr’s age feel as strongly as she does. But when they finally receive their assignments, for the first time, a Gaea decision doesn’t make sense to Kyr. What they choose for her and her brother Magnus feels like a mistake. A misuse, a waste. It’s this that makes one of Gaea’s greatest trainees doubt at last.
Because if they’re wrong about this, what else are they wrong about?
As Kyr embarks on a treacherous mission to save herself and her brother, she makes unexpected allies, and discovers truths more powerful and personal than she ever could have imagined.
At its core what makes Kyr’s story hit so hard is that this is a book about the work of deradicalization. It’s not easy to craft that story in a fun, surprising way, but Tesh does. The result is something that feels classic to the genre while also fresh and unapologetically anti-war. I’m a hard sell for a book that centers a soldier realizing they’re maybe not on the right side—because it so often is apologia, because as a reader I feel no need to put myself in the shoes of someone who’s been towing a xenophobic, militaristic party line, no matter how believable the shift. I know what horrors “righteous” violence has wrought. Tesh makes it work because she wrote the book with that understanding as a baseline, because she knows the white male imperialist canon that’s shaped a lot of mainstream genre conceits. Kyr’s arc is so believable and thorough, it hits all the notes I hoped it would and ones I didn’t expect.
I’m not going to spoil plot points aside from what can be gleaned by the summary, but I’ll share that it feels like this book is in conversation with conventions of the genre such as Ender’s Game. How fucking delightful and satisfying, as someone who grew up being taught those books as an unassailable part of the canon, to read something that does everything Card does, but with an intentionally conscious eye toward white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia. What a relief, honestly. I laughed aloud with joy at how well some of this was executed. Tesh gets at how desensitized we are to child soldiers, to empire. How easily we normalize the horrors of war, valorize its sacrifices in the name of something faceless and intangible to which we are meant to pledge allegiance. How cultlike, the way we other our enemies as barbaric, inferior, inhuman. How swift to decry ways of life unfamiliar to one’s own as an inherent threat, one that justifies any and all means of war in the name of a peace perpetually, needfully out of reach. Because the inherent dogma in a militaristic autocracy is that peace is weakness. And so bigotry cloaks itself in righteousness and the propaganda perpetuates. To question authority is denigrated as treason, as cowardice, as selfishness, even though in times of war there is no greater courage.
“No one told me they were people,” Kyr realizes. It’s easier to believe the enemy is lying to you than to realize you are the enemy in someone else’s story.
This is a story about unlearning and relearning, building your morals yourself from scratch once you’ve understood the magnitude of the lies you’ve been told. It’s not an easy thing, that deprogramming—it needs to be deliberate, it necessitates humility. You want to believe the suffering you’ve endured is for something. It’s easier, to falter. It would take so much less energy to just be what they made of you. And of course it’s not a neat escape—Kyr takes Gaia with her, she can’t not, and she has to learn who she is outside of it. And then she has to learn how to live as that person. Every page is earned here, as Kyr chips away at everything she’s ever known, and Tesh makes her readers feel the deliberate effort it takes.
They made a brilliantly powerful, brutally logical weapon out of her. They made Kyr to fight, serve, and die for what is right. To enact justice. That was their mistake, that was their own downfall—they succeeded. Kyr was more brainwashed than any of them. A true agent of the state. Which means she’s got one of the biggest grudges, and the capacity to turn one of their most powerful weapons against them—herself.
Here’s your awakened stormtrooper. You can’t change corruption from within, but you can use what you know of it against it. The system is weaker and smaller than they want us to believe.
Every element of this novel is a deeply satisfying subversion, and the characters are no exception. Every character is a mess of morals. Morality is as flexible as scale and context here, and Tesh expands and contracts the focus with interstitial world building. Nonhuman points of view begin the novel and punctuate throughout, granting well-timed perspectives that throw everything into question. Family dynamics—found and otherwise—twist and sever. Siblinghood and sacrifice take on new meaning.
Most of these characters are just children in the end, young people trying to do right in a universe no one knows how to live in yet, just after the end of Earth. Again, I’ll resist spoiling, but Tesh wields several tools of the genre so artfully I found myself grinning in delight. This is an impressively mature and nuanced novel, a breathtaking puzzle box that hits hard and pulls no punches. It’s fun as hell and masterfully twisty: accessible, epic, and profoundly human.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Fil-Am and Jewish writer and poet. They have a short story forthcoming in the YA anthology Night of the Living Queers (Wednesday Books, 2023). She works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel. Find them on Twitter (@mayagittelman) or Instagram (@bookshelfbymaya).