Victories Greater than Death by Charlie Jane Anders
eARC received from NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for review
288 pages, YA sci-fi
A thrilling adventure set against an intergalactic war with international bestselling author Charlie Jane Anders at the helm in her YA debut—think Star Wars meets Doctor Who, and buckle your seatbelts.
Tina has always known her destiny is outside the norm—after all, she is the human clone of the most brilliant alien commander in all the galaxies (even if the rest of the world is still deciding whether aliens exist). But she is tired of waiting for her life to begin.
And then it does—and maybe Tina should have been more prepared. At least she has a crew around her that she can trust—and her best friend at her side. Now, they just have to save the world.
Tina Mains is destined for greatness… someday. On Earth she’s an outcast, but someday she’ll prove herself worthy to take up the mantle – and memories – of Captain Thaoh Argentian, the famous alien soldier she was cloned from on the brink of death, and her home fleet will return to claim her. Someday her life will begin and she’ll become herself but more.
Then the beacon in her chest lights – and what unfolds is not as simple as Tina imagined.
Stranded in orbit, unable to access Captain Argentian’s personal memories, and faced with the reality of a diminished Royal Fleet that is locked in a galactic war against an enemy force, Tina will have to fight for both her life and for her identity.
This review contains minor spoilers, but I tried to limit it to concepts introduced in the first quarter of the book.
I want to say first of all that this book isn’t without its flaws, and I’d recommend reading a variety of reviews to see if it’s your thing – but for me it was an enjoyable, funny, heartfelt story, and a love letter to space operas. You might enjoy this if you’re a fan of space heroics, interrogations of the “chosen one” trope, the power of friendship and teamwork, and space-themed pop culture references.
Victories Greater than Death reminds me of the irreverent tone of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: the plot is full of life-or-death struggles, but you also have an alien character who redeemed their people by becoming an action movie star (who now lives in disgrace because they gave up stardom to join the Royal Fleet), and a narrative voice that gives lines like “I roll onto my back and look up at the stars until they come into focus: a chorus of splendor”, “spewing accelerated mercury ions like puke from a party bus”, and “the afterimage of that toxic flare still spanks my retinas” a few pages apart. The Royal Fleet recruits brilliant Earth teenagers to fill out their greatly diminished crew with phone puzzle apps (“How else do you get Earth teenagers to take a ton of weird math and science tests voluntarily?”). The narrative tone takes the piss out of genre tropes while playing its central plot and themes straight.
But the humour isn’t mean-spirited; this is an inclusive world at its heart. See how everyone in the Royal Fleet introduces themself with their preferred pronoun – except the alien entity for whom being addressed with any pronoun is offensive enough to warrant a fight to the death. This takes personal pronouns to the point of absurdity without invalidating their importance. Another example: Tina’s best friend, Rachael, desperately wants to leave the planet where she was bullied out of high school – and while the narrative pokes fun at Rachael for fearing bullies more than the possibility of a violent death in space, her desire to stay where she feels accepted isn’t the butt of the joke. This is a story about becoming yourself and finding where you belong; while it’s filled with funny moments, the humour doesn’t punch down or invalidate any character’s identity, which is a big part of the novel’s charm.
In addition to personal pronouns as a standard of self-introduction (i.e. “My name is Yatto the Monntha, and my pronoun is they“), this novel includes a bisexual main character, transfem bisexual love interest, and Earth recruits from around the world – China, Brazil, India, England, and the United States. The human cast is inclusive and diverse, and the aliens range from humanoid to murder noodles (with attention paid to the common trope of aliens appearing humanoid and attractive – as with many genre tropes addressed here, Anders pokes fun at the concept, but also spins the narrative so that this trope is intentionally addressed).
Something I want to draw attention to from the acknowledgments: Anders credits a handful of sensitivity readers who gave feedback during the editing process, and I love that. I think this should be common practice, especially when writing outside of one’s own lived experience, whether for main characters or supporting cast, no matter how speculative the genre.
One last character note. If you’re a fan of uncomfortably sympathetic villains, Marrant might be up your alley. Make no mistake: he’s a murderous asshole. His superpower is cruel and unusual. He refuses to take responsibility for the consequences of his own actions. But his desire for a world in which greater meaning exists, for everything he’s lost to make sense in a greater scheme, for perfect symmetry, isn’t so completely inhuman as to be incomprehensible.
My biggest complaint is pacing. The shift from play-by-play action to quieter and longer spans of time made sense in some sections – for example, once the crew is out of immediate danger, there are chapters where everyone trains and adjusts to life on the Indomitable – but in others the reader is plunked into the middle of the action, and the narrator fills in the blanks of how the characters ended up in their current situation with a summary. I feel like this could have been a longer book, even just a handful more pages, and devoted more attention to scene transitions and emotional flow, but overall it worked well enough.
The cast is a bit sprawling, which is tricky, because it makes sense to have a wide host of alien characters in order to highlight a universe’s worth of alien species, but sometimes the novel toed the line of information overload. That said, I had no trouble keeping track of the central cast, and there’s a glossary of time measurements, important terms, and alien species in the back of the book for all those times you’re like “another Zanthuron… what’s a Zanthuron again?” or “how long is a megacycle?”
One aspect of the story that’s produced polarised reviews is Tina’s unlocked memory, which gives her access to all of Thaoh Argentian’s technical knowledge but none of Argentian’s personal or emotionally-weighted memories. I personally liked this approach: it gave Tina the knowledge base to explain and engage with her new alien surroundings without a ton of exposition, so she can serve as translator for her fellow Earthlings and the reader. More importantly, gaining Argentian’s knowledge of the alien world, and having a built-in system to shortcut the minutiae of communication and understanding, doesn’t take away from Tina’s central character dilemma: if she’s not Thaoh Argentian 2.0, then who is she? How can she possibly live up to the legacy of her progenitor? How can she square what she’s always wanted with what she wants now?
Victories Greater than Death is a fantastic YA debut that succeeds on many levels: as an inclusive and expansive sci-fi world, as genre-savvy satire, and as a commentary on concepts like legacy, self-determination, and found family. I’m looking forward to the rest of this planned trilogy!