A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Unstoppable Trilogy
by Charlie Jane Anders

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 21, 2021
Edits and Addenda on April 24 & 30, 2023

Victories Greater Than Death / Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak / Promises Stronger Than Darkness

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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 a digital review copy 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 Makvarian 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. Their idea of compassion is putting someone else out of their misery, with a "mercy" killing. Rachael was brought on board due to having been exposed to radiation, but once that is mitigated, and on the cusp of being returned to Earth, she 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 English, 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. [EDIT, 4/24/23: After re-reading, the phrase seems to refer to the Royal Fleet, which at one time was considered to be unstoppable, but that was before the defection of Marrant and those who followed him.] 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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Posted April 24, 2023:
I've had the sequel novel for almost a year, purchased for Kindle, then I won a signed hardcover in a giveaway from Tor. I should have read it before now, but many other books got in the way, and I decided to wait until the conclusion was published. I have started the third one, and will update this page again when finished. To reiterate a few things about the first book: Tina Mains was cloned from an alien warrior, then left on Earth. When she was seventeen she was retrieved by a ship from the Royal Fleet, along with her best friend Rachael Townsend, who convinced the ship's captain to allow her to stay onboard, and she also devised tests to recruit other Earth geniuses. The first novel was written in first-person, Tina being the narrator. The second is mostly in third-person, with the exception of Tina's logs, and the occasional chats between various characters through an app known as JoinerTalk. Tina knows a lot about Royal Fleet ships and tactics, but she's still missing personal memories of Thaoh Argentian, the Royal Fleet officer she was cloned from. The Earthlings, as they nicknamed themselves, all contributed to different missions, none more so than Rachael. The other four were skilled in maths and other scientific disciplines, but Rachael's talent was with art. Without going into detail, her ability enabled her to shut down an ancient machine which Thondra Marrant had activated through the sacrifice of hundreds of non-humanoid aliens. During that process, Rachael discovered the true nature of those previously known as the Shapers. They called themselves the Vayt. Another result of that process was that Rachael lost her artistic ability, a major frustration for her. She has no idea what to do if she can't create art anymore.

In the first section of the review above I said that Thondra Marrant was the leader of The Compassion, but that was incorrect. He was captain of a ship, and commander over several others, but he was not the one who created the rebellion against the Royal Fleet. That would be another Makvarian, Kankakn, who recruited Marrant to the cause. Marrant had been Thaoh Argentian's best friend before his defection, and another ally had been his wife, Aym. Marrant had killed Thaoh, and Aym was inadvertently killed due to another of his actions, which also killed millions of others. The Royal Fleet served Her Majesty's Firmament, the capital city of which is Wentrolo in the Glorious Nebula, which has an artificial sun. The seat of government was the Palace of Scented Tears, where the Queen and her princesses connected to the ancient computers, the Ardenii. The surviving crew of the Indomitable, including the Earthlings, are brought to Wentrolo to be honored for their heroic deeds. They had captured Marrant, assuming he would at least be incarcerated, if not executed for his crimes, but he has allies in the court, including at least one of the princesses. The Earthlings embark on new ventures, the majority taking classes in various disciplines at the Royal Academy, Tina choosing to forego anything that would involve fighting. Elza chooses to be the first human to undergo training to be one of the princesses. Rachael is adrift, having lost her ability to create art, but the Queen offers her a puzzle which might lead to recovering her talent. Marrant being allowed to recruit others to his side is but one of the reasons each in turn become skeptical of the Firmament, and their place in it.

The shift to third-person narrative is just one way this differs from the first book. Each of the Earthlings go their separate ways for a while, making new friends among various species, new alliances, even some romantic relationships. Rachael meets other artists, one of which plans to leave Wentrolo in their spaceship, which is cleverly disguised as their home/artist workshop. One of the princesses takes Elza under her wing, eventually recruiting her for a spy mission, which also includes the support of Kez and Yiwei. Tina and Damini, who has become a master pilot, along with Damini's new soul-mate, join another mission to observe a black hole which may be rapidly changing into a white hole. All eventually come back together after their separate adventures, and because of their new associates they decide they can't be just the Earthlings anymore, so they adopt a new name, the Champions of Suck. Not only are there new configurations of friendships, one disaster has resulted in two different ships being salvaged and combined, and renamed. Now it's the Undisputed Training Bra Disaster. Don't forget, this is YA, with the main characters in their late teens or early 20s, including many of the aliens. There is still a lot of snark and playful banter amongst the tragic events. Part of the tragedy is that several are harboring secrets they should have told the others long ago. None of those is more serious than what Tina has to deal with, but I won't elaborate. Rachael has been connected to the Vayt since the climactic event of the first book, and they continually tell her all is doomed. Apparently their efforts had been to prepare to fight yet another species even more advanced and dangerous.

I ended the review of the first book saying that among the tragedy there was still hopeful optimism, but it is hard to say that now. I have to be optimistic the end result will be less tragic than it appears, but it is likely there will be more unavoidable death, including personal sacrifices. I've been thinking most readers would rather see a lighter tone, more in keeping with the first two words in each title. The first words are: Victories, Dreams, Promises, followed by Greater, Bigger, Stronger, but we can't forget the last words; Death, Heartbreak, Darkness. At the close of the second book, there is a Darkness over everything and everyone. How can they overcome that?


*     *     *

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Posted April 30, 2023:
I'll try to be as brief as possible. The Darkness of the title refers to both a physical phenomenon, and to many of the emotions expressed. Various actions have created divisions between characters, but they strive to correct their mistakes and come back together. Tina had promised to be Elza's consort when she became a Princess, to always be by her side, but chose something else for a time, thinking it was her only option. Tina and Keziah were trying to be pacifistic, while Yiwei thought violent action was the proper course, the only way to combat the Compassion. He continued on that course even after he almost ended the lives of Tina and Rachael through impulsive action. The Compassion transformed into the Royal Compassion after Marrant escaped and gathered many of the Royal Fleet to his side, including what we later learn to be the sole surviving Princess. That's not counting Elza, who is referred to as the Rogue Princess, since she actually failed her final test, but was still supported by her mentor, and apparently by the Ardenii as well.

Marrant followed the lead of the Vayt, whose philosophy was that humanoid species were superior, and non-humanoid were lesser beings, to be either subjugated or destroyed. This speaks to matters in the real world of marginalized people being demonized by the rise (again) of fascism. The Royal Fleet had been trying to help as many as they could, forming alliances between humanoid and non-humanoid worlds, and there were still some loyal to that endeavor. But many others had fallen under the influence of Marrant, and Kankakn before him, who wanted humanoids to control everything. Except as we have also seen in the real world, and to paraphrase Orwell, all humanoids are equal, but some humanoids are more equal that others. Even if the Royal Compassion could not be defeated, it was likely they would tear themselves apart trying to prove one species deserved more power than others.

The Darkness is referenced at the beginning of most of the chapters: "XXX Earth days until [redacted]." Throughout the book the chances of reversing that seemed very bleak, with Marrant apparently anticipating every move Tina and her friends made, and at one point I literally yelled out, "Fuck you, Charlie Jane!" when it seemed my favorite character was doomed. Thankfully that didn't happen, but it dampended my spirts for several more chapters until their survival was assured. The ending was a lot more positive than seemed likely for a long time, but several possibilites are left dangling, and I'd welcome further exploration into how the new galactic alliance fares, and I want to know what lies ahead for Tina and Elza, Rachael and Yiwei, Damini and Zaeta, Keziah and Ganno. Recommended, with just a few caveats. I occasionally had a hard time visualizing the situation, particularly as the climax neared, with the showdown between the Compassion and rebel Royal loyalists. There were times when Tina, Rachael, and the others were able to do things while also avoiding Marrant, escaping from dire situations, including incarceration, when you would think they would have been spotted. Also, the Royal Compassion soldiers had even worse aim than Imperial Stormtroopers. But I shrugged those off and continued reading, and I recommend you do the same. The endgame is worth it.


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Charlie Jane Anders


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