Since she was born, Kyr has trained for the day she can avenge the murder of planet Earth. Raised in the bowels of Gaea Station alongside the last scraps of humanity, she readies herself to face the Wisdom, the powerful, reality-shaping weapon that gave the majoda their victory over humanity.
They are what’s left. They are what must survive. Kyr is one of the best warriors of her generation, the sword of a dead planet. When Command assigns her brother to certain death and relegates her to Nursery to bear sons until she dies trying, she knows she must take humanity’s revenge into her own hands.
Alongside her brother’s brilliant but seditious friend and a lonely, captive alien, Kyr escapes from everything she’s known into a universe far more complicated than she was taught and far more wondrous than she could have imagined.
This was one of the books on my list of anticipated books of 2023. I read an advanced copy after reading the first chapter posted by the publisher earlier this year. One of the blurbs on the cover describes the experience of reading this book as “palm-sweating,” and I have to agree. This is not a romance, not even as a science fiction novel with romantic elements, even though sexual orientation is an important element to the society that Kyr is a member of. This is very much a character-driven novel, but that doesn’t mean that plot and setting aren’t important–the main conflict is how making different choices effects the final outcome and the lives of people that the main character doesn’t even know. Emily Tesh provides important content warnings at the beginning of the book, and she was not exaggerating them at all, so if you are the least bit triggered by any or all of the things on that list, then please take care of yourself when choosing to read this book. The book is broken up into five parts or acts, with the last two parts retelling the story so that there are different choices available to Kyr. The parts are prefaced by in-universe excerpts of books, which serve to provide a bigger picture and context to what Kyr knows and believes, but not too much. This isn’t a choose-your-own-adventure type of book, because the reader doesn’t get to make the different choices; it’s all up to Kyr and her fellow characters. The book is told from Kyr’s point of view, but not in the first-person. It is important for you to be very clear on this point—Kyr is not a likeable character. She isn’t misunderstood, or prickly on the outside and soft on the inside. The most flattering description of her I can give is that she is a self-righteous, perfectionist, rule-abiding bitch. She’s smart and very good at being a soldier, but those are her main redeeming qualities for most of the book.
Tesh does a very good job of giving Kyr’s world enough depth to make it believable without getting bogged down in exposition, which is a true author skill. As the book unfolds, we learn how the cult came to be, how it works, and how truly awful it is. Very briefly, the cult arises from some soldiers who survived the total destruction of Earth and most of humanity after a war with aliens. There are lots of humans who survived and didn’t end up part of this cult, and the cult sees them as traitors and/or alien collaborators. The cult doesn’t speak an actual language from Earth, but rather a standardized language invented after humans encountered aliens to facilitate communication; they don’t have a religion per se, and the only “family” allowed are the bonds between the people you train with as a child and the people you work with as an adult. Kyr doesn’t realize that her militant cult is terrible until several chapters into the book. She absolutely believes in it’s ideals, until she learns on a visceral level how little the cult values her. I admit, I had to flip to the end to see how the book ended around when Kyr is relearning everything she thought she knew about the world outside of her cult because it wasn’t until the very last minute that she realized how utterly wrong everything she had been taught was, and I could not tell how Tesh would turn things around. I promise, it is worth it.
Kyr is the driving force of this book, despite how truly awful she is. This is possibly because she has compelling qualities that go beyond her rule-abiding and perfectionism; they are qualities we might recognize in ourselves, if not expressed in such terrible ways. She is deeply loyal—which is bad when it comes to the cult, but good when it comes to her brother, whom she loves, even though those kinds of attachments have been ruthlessly suppressed in the cult. She is good at coming up with solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems, although she isn’t a good team player. She’s not good at emotional things—not reading people’s emotional cues, or expressing her own feelings aloud. Some readers may see this as some sort of neurodivergence, although because of how the cult brought up the children born into it, I think separating out the influence of the cult and Kyr’s own neurodivergence is tricky. She wants to be recognized for her abilities by the cult, almost above anything else for most of the first half of the book, which is compelling if a little horrifying. And she is able to recognize personhood in aliens, even though she has been taught all her life not to. Her character development is particularly fascinating when compared to her sort of foil, Avicenna (Avi), a cynical, angry, evil genius. Watching her try to unlearn all that she has ever known to be true was deeply engrossing and ultimately satisfying.
This book has left me with a lot to think about, and I’ve been recommending it to friends even more than before I read it. If you feel up to a dark but ultimately hopeful read, definitely pick up this book.
You can buy a copy here.