Alana Quick is a talented sky surgeon – a fixer and mender of spaceships – but despite her skills, her life is anything but easy. Ever since the Othersiders and their fantastic technology appeared through a rift in space, regular businesses have been taking a succession of hard economic hits, leading to a decline in demand for sky surgeons. Alana also has Mel’s Disease: a degenerative genetic condition that, if left untreated, causes her intense pain that could potentially cause her permanent, even lethal physical damage. But business is bad, and medicine is expensive, forcing Alana to live hand to mouth. Even so, and despite the repeated urgings of her sister, Nova – a wealthy and successful spirit guide – Alana can’t bear to give up working the ships she loves for the sake of a steady paycheck. So when a gorgeous Gartik transport ship, the Tangled Axon, lands at Alana’s shop, she leaps at the opportunity for work, only to find that the captain, one Tev Helix, is looking for Nova instead.
Alana makes a snap decision and stows away on the Tangled Axon, hoping to prove her capabilities as a sky surgeon by fixing a ship which every instinct tells her is damaged.
Desperate to get off-planet and encouraged by the ship’s medic, Alana makes a snap decision and stows away on the Tangled Axon, hoping to prove her capabilities as a sky surgeon by fixing a ship which every instinct tells her is damaged, but to which she nonetheless feels a powerful connection. Yet once they discover Alana’s presence, the crew soon prove to be equally as intriguing: along with the sexy, mysterious Tev, there’s Slip, the medic with a past, Ovie, an engineer who’s also a wolf, and Marre, a pilot who drifts in and out of reality, and for all this strangeness, Alana has never felt so at home. But shortly after she convinces Nova to take up a spirit guide contract with Tev, catastrophe strikes in the most horrific way imaginable. On the run and pursued for a crime they didn’t commit, Alana and the crew of the Tanlged Axon have to try and unravel the truth of the Othersiders, not only in order to prove their innocence, but to save their ship – and themselves.
From the very first moment I saw the cover art for Ascension and read the blurb, I knew it was something I wanted to read – I mean, an SFF story whose narrator/protagonist is a queer WOC dealing with chronic illness? Those sort of novels don’t just grow on trees! As such, I was fairly nervous when I finally obtained a copy, because raising your expectations beforehand is always a dangerous move. Thankfully, Ascension didn’t disappoint: despite the fact that a particular continuity error niggled at me the whole way through (we’re told Alana spent time off-planet as a child, but also that she’s never left Heliodor) and even though the pacing lagged a little around the 40% mark, overall, I was so enamoured of everything else – the gorgeous, occasionally outright poetic prose; the excellent characterisation; the chemistry between Tev and Alana; the complex sisterly relationship between Alana and Nova; the narrative themes; the world itself – that my few complaints all paled into insignificance. Let there be no doubt: I genuinely loved this book, and can’t wait to read the next volume in the series.
Ascension left me feeling like Jacqueline Koyanagi had come along and wrapped me in a big, warm blanket composed of my favourite SFFnal tropes.
However – and as much as the characterisation was refreshingly non-default, in terms of the cast being exclusively composed of queer, polyamorous, disabled, otherkin and POC characters, all of whom were well-written, well-rounded people – there was also something very familiar about the actual worldbuilding. Not that this is a strike against the book: reading Ascension left me feeling like Jacqueline Koyanagi had come along and wrapped me in a big, warm blanket composed of my favourite SFFnal tropes, but without the problematic elements, which is basically the best thing ever. Still, it’s worth mentioning that, as a ship, the Tangled Axon bears more than a passing resemblance to Firefly’s Serenity – just as Marre, the pilot who drifts in and out of reality, kept reminding me of River Tam (and especially the River we see in Objects in Space). The role of spirit guides and their particular type of thought-and-willpower magic felt very akin to that of Jedi wielding the Force, minus the lightsabers, while the early destruction of the planet Adul left me thinking of the respective deaths of Alderan and Vulcan in Star Wars and Star Trek. Throw in the fact that my mental casting for the Axon’s crew kept skewing heavily towards SFFnal actors (Gina Torres as Alana, Katee Sackhoff as Tev, Zhang Ziyi as Marre, Jennifer Lopez as Slip, Tamara Taylor as Nova and Lenny Kravitz as Ovie, if you were wondering) and it was hard to get away from the cinematic connections.
And then I realised: not just in terms of tropage, but the actual narrative structure, Ascension really does feel like a movie born in book-form. The pacing-lag, for instance, feels more like the practical upshot of being forced to render in words the sort of emotional gear-shifting that works perfectly on screen than the result of poor plotting. As the crew recover from Adul’s destruction, we go from one intensely powerful action scene to a series of vignettes depicting the internality of Alana’s recovery and her slow acceptance as part of the crew, and while the transition felt slightly jarring on paper, the instant I pictured how the scene would work in film – specifically, the way camera angles, music and sweeping shots would convey in seconds a mood that Koyanagi has to build with paragraphs and pages of explanation – the whole thing clicked into place. And while that’s arguably a flaw of a different sort, it’s not one that irked me in the least.
Ascension feels simultaneously like a heartfelt subversion of, and tribute to, the classic SF films and shows we all know and love.
At its core, then, Ascension feels simultaneously like a heartfelt subversion of, and tribute to, the classic SF films and shows we all know and love: subversion, in that Koyanagi replaces the traditional straight white male dominance of such narrative with, as she says in her author bio, diverse characters resembling “herself and the people she loves”; tribute, in the sense that her influences are rendered both clearly and lovingly in her own creation, so that if we squint a bit at Tev Helix, with her cattle-droving origins and transformative love of her outmoded cargo ship, it’s not too hard to see a genderbent Mal Reynolds. (There’s even a gentle nod to this particular influence near the end of the book, where a beacon set free by the Axon’s crew is described by Alana as “just one more firefly glittering in the black.”) It is, in other words, exactly the sort of book we need more of; and I can only hope the marketplace agrees with me.