Emily Tesh set herself a difficult task in Some Desperate Glory. Present the reader with a young protagonist raised in a militaristic society who is all about duty, war-breeding, xenophobia, homophobia and worse, then draw her through enough world-shattering experiences to make her interesting, flaws and all, from start to finish. And Tesh hits the mark. I found the novel to be one of the most interesting character studies in recent science fiction.
Some Desperate Glory is also an exciting adventure about the last remnants of human society after the destruction of Earth, with world-splitting events shaking the characters to the core and keeping the interest high right to the last page. Sure, some of the action depends on black-box doings with the aid of a sentient AI called the Wisdom that can manipulate shadowspace, whatever that is, and all reality, but that’s not unusual in a space opera. What is unusual are the many transformations the young hero, Valkyr, undergoes that shatter her beliefs and leave her to reach for the deepest core of her sense of right and wrong in order to survive.
(It’s hard to talk about this novel without some spoilers, so be warned.)
Her world is Gaea – an asteroid converted to a space station, home, we are told, to the few thousand people who continue the human gene pool after the alien enemy of the dominant majoda, had destroyed Earth. Valkyr, Kyr for short, is a part of a warrior breed, ending her ten years as a cadet and awaiting assignment to one of the wings that sustains Gaea. That means either a fighting unit, one of the mechanical systems operations that sustain the station, or Nursery, responsible for producing the future of humanity.
Kyr is all duty and has scored highest in her small cohort, the Sparrows, in military and strategic skills, sure that she will be assigned to a lead battle unit. She and her twin brother Magnus, or Mags, their parents dead, raised under the tutelage of Aulus Jole, a commander of Gaea and survivor of Earth, were perfect candidates to be humanity’s next heroes in fighting the hated majo. But then Kyr hears from the brilliant but obnoxious Avi that Magnus refused his assignment, was dismissed as a traitor and has left Gaea. That’s just the beginning of the world-unraveling story that challenges Kyr’s beliefs and hurls her into a universe of multiple realities.
She has a lot to overcome to find the person she could be. Raised to endure the extremes of violence and physical endurance, she unquestioningly accepted beliefs in genetic superiority of her people and the inferiority of other races. At one point she compares a captive majo to the animals people had once kept as pets on Earth. She accepts the hierarchical ranking of human talent as essential to the orderly functioning of the small society of Gaea. It is only the shock she receives when getting her permanent assignment to one of Gaea’s divisions that she starts to see things differently. From then on, we start to see as she does that things are not at all as she had believed them to be until major upheavals change everything.
There is frequent contrast between what other characters – especially the arch-enemy majo – are saying and Kyr’s effort to block them out. When she is trying to focus on killing a majo prisoner, the thousand year-old Leru who has great power over the Wisdom, she keeps freezing up as Leru’s words contradict everything she has ever known about the majo and the unquestioned need to kill them all. Leru describes a possible human future within the majoda, which, they claim, is not a tyranny, empire or federation. It is composed of sentient peoples of all types whose material needs are met and who govern themselves as they choose. In fact, they paint a picture of near utopian conditions where there is no place for the kind of militarism that has been central to Kyr’s life.
Kyr keeps resolving to stab the majo but is blocked at every turn by Leru’s powers, which they seem to use with little physical effort. This scene carries on to a powerful conclusion in a multi-sided confrontation that changes reality completely. It is part of the long process which shakes Kyr’s values. But there is another inner struggle that Some Desperate Glory handles so well.
That struggle involves the long-lasting effects of trauma and psychological manipulation. The leader of Gaea, Aulus Jole, himself a survivor of Earth, has structured the experience of growing up on the space station so that young people have no sense of any reality other than the one constructed by him and his allies. Kyr has so absorbed his influence as to doubt herself and conflicting perceptions, even at decisive moments when she can’t afford to fail. Her struggle to overcome this internalized oppression is a key part of the drama of this story that kept me going even through her worst moments when she is paralyzed in the midst of action.
This is a novel that repays close reading and requires suspension of judgment until the whole of Kyr’s experience comes into view. It is a strange coming of age story that delivers a lot of excitement and breath-taking shifts. Some Desperate Glory is great space opera on many levels.
My thanks to Tordotcom and Net Galley for an advance review copy of Some Desperate Glory as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.
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