Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi
When Ascension was announced early last year, my Internet circles were all abuzz. (Or should that be all atwitter?) The growing diversity of speculative fiction is something to be celebrated, even if the process can seem delayed by the last remnants of the old guard. And Ascension offers much more than baby steps in that department— women, people of color, queer folk, poly people, disabled people… I can imagine it might be a bit shocking for some readers to finish Ascension and realize that there was only one male character in the entire novel. Given how often I find myself faced with the Smurfette principle in speculative fiction, getting my heads on something so
Obviously, then, Ascension was directly up my alley. I actually despaired a bit of getting my hands on it for a bit. Not only was it was published as a digital book six months ahead of its paperback release, but I’m currently at the mercy of the Denver Public Library for getting my hands on any new books. Being used to a Georgia library system, I thought that it might not appeal to a public library. But, as luck would have it, Jacqueline Koyanagi is a local author—I actually bumped into her at the store during that Malinda Lo event I hosted last year. She never even mentioned that she’d written a book that was sitting on my reading list!
About that book… Ascension follows Alana Quick, a sky surgeon (a specialized engineer), whose sheer love of spaceships has kept her away from a steady job that might finance her medical bills. Alana suffers from Mel’s Disease, a chronic pain disorder that, unmedicated, will kill Alana after trapping her in her own body. But with the popularity of the mysterious ships provided by Transliminal Solutions, a firm from a different universe, work is drying up. When a beautiful but outdated ship touches down in her yard, she’s overjoyed—but the crew isn’t looking for her, but her sister, the celebrated spirit guide Nova Quick. Still hopeful, Alana stows away. The captain, the gorgeous and fiery Tev Helix, is not pleased, but Alan nevertheless finds a second home on The Tangled Axon, even after the crew kinda sorta blackmails her sister into coming on board. But their peace is threatened when the crew stumbles across the real reason Transliminal Solutions is spreading throughout the galaxy…
As Foz Meadows pointed out in her review at A Dribble of Ink, Ascension feels like a lot of the science fiction that’s come before it. Firefly, another text about a found family on an outdated spaceship, looms large, as do the destructions of Alderaan and Vulcan in Star Wars and Star Trek, respectively. It can a be little difficult to parse through all the influences to get to the worldbuilding, although I adore how Koyanagi utilizes parallel universes. Unfortunately, that’s not brought up until the very end of the novel; instead, Ascension is largely concerned with Alana, her life, and her relationship to the other characters.
And it’s here where Koyanagi shines. (After all, she specifically states in her author bio that she writes to reflect both herself and the people in her life, so it’s these interpersonal relationships that are nearest and dearest to her.) Alana’s attraction to Tev is seemingly blocked by the fact that Tev is dating her medical officer, but the truth is much more interesting. Without spoiling too much, I really adore that it takes Alana a little while to get used to the arrangement she’s in at the end of the novel. (And, of course, it’s marvelous to see two well-rounded female characters fall in love on the run, with bother each other and their lives.) Alana also bonds with Marre, the ill and quiet pilot of the ship, in a very sweet way.
But far and away my favorite relationship was that between Alana and her sister, Nova. I’m on a bit of a sister kick at the moment, between Sleepy Hollow and my relentless head canons about Amora the Enchantress and her little sister Lorelei. Alana and Nova hold their own against both sets of sisters, both the well-written and the pretty much imaginary at the moment. The Quick sisters are very different and barely understand each other, but, fundamentally, they love each other. Alana’s journey as a character is not only self-actualization as an actual sky surgeon on an actual ship, but also coming to terms with her sister’s lifestyle as a spirit guide. This theme, while definitely present (love is the main motivator for the antagonist), isn’t pressed as hard as it could be, which ultimately leaves Ascension a fun but filling diverse alternative to Firefly.
Bottom line: A fun but filling diverse alternative to Firefly. If you’d like!
I rented this book from the public library.