Thursday, April 08, 2021

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

Victories Greater Than Death is a young adult sci-fi novel by Charlie Jane Anders. I read it as a stand-alone, but it turned out to be the first book in Universal Expansion trilogy. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The sole point of view character is Tina. She’s an American teenager who knows she’s a clone of an alien spaceship captain, genetically modified to look like a human and with all her memories. She’s accepted that one day she’ll leave the earth and become a new person. But it happens more abruptly than she would’ve wished when Marrat, the enemy who killed the original captain, finds her first.

During the daring escape, she takes her best friend Rachel with her on the rescuing spaceship. When it turns out that the spaceship is short on qualified staff, they pick up four other teenagers from all over the earth too, all geniuses in their own field. Together they set out on a quest across the universe to find a stone Marrat wants before him. Clues to what it is and where to find it are in the memories of the original captain.

But the medical procedure that’s supposed to make Tina the original captain again doesn’t quite work. She’s left with encyclopaedic knowledge of space and great new skills, but with her own memories and personality, and with no traces of the original captain. It triggers an identity crisis in her, which is the driving theme of the book.

The book starts with a lot of action and then slows down for a very long middle part. There are episodic scenes of Tina and the earthlings, as they call themselves, learning new skills and studying the new world they find themselves in. There’s also a great deal of teenage angst about who they are or want to be, and who they want to be with.

Teenage drama is what YA books are about, and it’s done fairly well here; the characters behave like teenagers and not like adults in teenagers’ bodies. But since it doesn’t really interest me, it made the already slow middle of the book drag far too long.

Action returns in the last third with the final confrontation with Marrat. An ancient alien race has gone through the universe millions of years ago to help humanoids to thrive over creatures that aren’t based on two legs, arms and eyes. Marrat wants to bring this back, and the earthlings and their spaceship crew rise to oppose his humanoid supremacy.

Marrat is an evil creature who isn’t easily won, but in a true YA fashion, the teenagers succeed where the adults fail. The final battle felt a little off, however. In a first person narrative, I would’ve expected Tina to be the one who pulls off the impossible, but while it was a team effort, she was basically left to observe the outcome from the side-lines.

It’s nice, in principle, to give each character equal time to shine. But from a narrative point of view, it doesn’t work. Especially since it was done ‘the wrong way round’. It would’ve made a greater dramatic impact, if Tina had been allowed to act on her original plan, and the last minute solution had come only after it was almost too late to save her. Now, there was no drama, and the final battle fell flat.

The ending wasn’t conclusive, which also lessened its impact, as I believed I was reading a stand-alone. Even knowing there are more books to come, it doesn’t feel satisfying enough. The last sentence of the book positively threw me.

But the book isn’t so much about action as it is about representation. There are gay, bi and transgender characters, black and Asian ones, and the alien races add their own uniqueness to the mix. Everyone introduces themselves with their name and preferred pronouns. It was a bit jarring at first; education for education’s sake. However, most characters are odd and alien to each other, even on a spaceship, so it was merely practical to tell these things upfront.

Everyone accepts everyone else just the way they are. Gender and sexuality issues that would’ve been the main themes in most YA books are given normalcy and not addressed. The identity issues that Tina and her friends grapple with aren’t based on who they fall in love with or what they look like underneath their clothes. It’s about finding their place in the universe as they are, based on their skills and what they like to do. Tina especially has to figure out a lot, since she wasn’t miraculously altered to someone else after all. On the flip-side, the characters—the minor ones especially—became the sum of their skills, not living, breathing persons.

The book tries to include everyone, respect everyone’s choices and personal space (consent was asked for every hug), understand everyone and not to be mean to or dismissive of anyone. It was nice, but it didn’t offer much character conflict or chance for personal growth for any of the characters, which are the building blocks of any narrative. The reader wasn’t given a reason to read beyond the action plot.

I also found it odd that on a spaceship full of aliens the earthlings only hung around amongst themselves. Without proper interaction with the aliens on an equal level (mostly they were teachers and commanding officers who weren’t given backstories), they didn’t really have to question their humanity. They could’ve been anywhere on earth, and the book would’ve been pretty much the same.

In the end, I didn’t like the book quite as much as I hoped I would—or as much as I enjoyed the first few chapters. The odd, dispirited ending doesn’t really make me want to read the next book either. But I’ll probably continue with the series anyway, if only to see whether the earthlings end up where they want to go.

 

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