Victories Greater Than Death (Unstoppable #1)
by Charlie Jane Anders
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 21, 2021
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Charlie Jane Anders' new YA space opera, Victories Greater Than Death, will be published in about three weeks, April 13. I received an ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. In spite of being decades older than the target demo, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I could nit-pick a few things, but they're minor, and do make sense within the context of the story and characters. It's told in first-person by Tina Mains, an American teenager. In that context, the hyperactive hyperbole, snarky comments, and pop culture references fit. Except Tina is not actually an American teenager, or at least that is what she has been told by the woman she knows as her mother. Supposedly, she is the clone of a dead alien warrior, Captain Thaoh Argentian, a Makavian officer in the Royal Fleet. Disguised as a human child, Tina was left on Earth seventeen years earlier. Tina learned of her provenance sometime in her early teens, and ever since then anticipated the recall from space. She had been having nightmares of someone hunting her, whom she believes is named Marrant. She is out one night with her best friend Rachael when the homing beacon in her chest starts broadcasting a signal, along with bright, starry lights that surround her.
Tina and Rachael are retrieved by a Royal Fleet ship which is being pursued by a ship from the rival faction, The Compassion. That word means the exact opposite of how it would normally be defined. On the cusp of being returned to Earth, Rachael proposes recruiting other intelligent humans to join the fight. Tests are designed and broadcast all over the globe, and four candidates are brought to the ship by the same means as Tina and Rachael, via "orbital funnels." The first two to come aboard are Damini, a girl from Mumbai who is a maths wizard, and Keziah, an African immigrant from London. The Compassion ship is attacking the Royal Fleet ship Indomitable, so its captain wants to escape Earth orbit, but Tina embarks on a suicide mission to retrieve the other two orbital funnels. She is able to save Elza, a brilliant hacker from Saġ Paulo, and Yiwei, an engineering student and musician from China. Yiwei has brought the two most important things to him, his steel guitar and a robot he built, Xiaohou, his musical accompanist. They learn that Keziah is glad to have escaped Earth, to have escaped his abusive father, whom he calls the Black Elon Musk, only richer and more evil. The Indomitable is crewed by many different species, so by this time I was already envisioning this as similar to Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars, with the six humans similar to the characters in Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children book series. Throw in a dash of The Last Starfighter and you'll get an idea of the wild ride in store.
I don't want to go into too many other details about the plot, but will offer a few general comments. The humans learn a lot from the motley crew of the Indomitable, and in turn they teach the aliens a thing or two. Each species has unique physiology and temperment, but they have learned to work together, made more difficult by the fact The Compassion forces are made up of some of their own people who rebelled against the fleet. The head of the Compassion is Thondra Marrant, a former colleague of Captain Argentian, who has become obsessed with learning more about the ancient "Shapers," who apparently guided the maturation of various humanoid species, while inhibiting the growth of "lesser" species. Their secrets may be found in the Talgan Stone, which Marrant is seeking, but Tina hopes to find it first. Tina was supposed to have Argentian's memories, and she does have an uncanny grasp on Royal Fleet protocols, ship functions, and weaponry, but for some reason specific details of Argentian's personal life are missing. She does learn from some of the captain's preserved logs, yet they still do not trigger memories. Something that might seem over the top to some readers, when each of the aliens introduces themselves they also reveal their preferred pronoun. It makes sense in the context of EverySpeak, a universal translator. They aren't necessarily identifying their pronouns, but it comes through in translation, in a similar way that Spanish and other Earth languages have gendered pronouns. Some species have three or more genders, thus different mating rituals, and one of the humans is transgender, although I'm not identifying which.
It's a relatively short book, but also the start of a series with the collective name of Unstoppable. I have no idea to whom or what that might refer. Tina being the narrator, she is the main character, but she doesn't overshadow others. On the contrary, they all have their own strengths, and each have contributed to the success of various missions. There is tragedy, death, and destruction, but also hopeful optimism. Cooperation and compassion (the real meaning of that word) helps them overcome great odds, but it's obvious their story has just begun. With a will, and by the grace of the Hosts of Misadventure, they will continue to prevail. Recommended.
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