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green book cover of Ascension shows a woman who looks remarkably like Gina Torres dressed in a space suit

Between the joyful exuberance that permeates Jacqueline Koyanagi’s debut and the family-like crew at the centre of her story, it’s unsurprising that several reviewers have drawn parallels between "Ascension" and "Firefly". Like "Firefly", "Ascension" has a lot of heart. It’s an emotionally warm book which manages to make a large space ship, hanging in the immense blackness of space, feel like a cosy domestic environment. It also enthusiastically throws itself into portraying life’s adventure, tragedy and weirdness, and draws out truly touching emotional moments without being saccharine. What I loved best about "Firefly", beyond the specifics of character and setting, was its constant beating heart; its clear love for people, stories and SFF creation. "Ascension" has that same quality and I was easily drawn into a novel which felt as if it had been built with love, excitement and enthusiasm.

"Ascension" has space adventures, werewolves, hot female starship captains and mysterious, dissolving women. It’s got space gardens, explosions, make-outs and friendships! Fun radiates off this book as it plays with SFF tropes and draws its characters through their adventures. Reading Ascension reminded me of watching TV programs like "Xena: Warrior Princess", "Star Trek Enterprise", "Merlin" and, yes, Firefly – SFF shows that filled their character’s lives with friendship and love and wonder. These programs often also included the angst I've come to crave, but I ultimately watched them because they were fun SFF creations which believed people could achieve amazing acts of heroism. SFF, they said, didn’t all have to all be grim and dark. Sometimes it could involve ridiculous disguises, implausible but satisfying rescues, or friends and lovers who stuck by each other.

So, yes, a certain amount of personal nostalgia affected my reaction to "Ascension"; a desire for an SFF book full of love. However, this novel isn’t a nostalgic piece of SFF. Ascension is part of a growing wave of new SFF publications that are expanding the genre by putting more lesbian, bisexual, chromatic and disabled characters into stories. The book’s cast contains central lesbian and bisexual characters, disabled characters and chromatic characters who all claim the skies as their home. It stands beside past and present SFF works which have departed from the heterosexual, white, male genre default that readers are often encouraged to focus on.

As written representations of lesbian characters increase, I’ve seen fans calling for more novels with LGBTQ characters who are already out by the time the reader first meets them.
Within the first few pages the reader learns that Alana Quick, ‘Mechanic. Stowaway. Hero’ and protagonist of "Ascension", is divorced; split from her female childhood sweetheart Kugler. I always like stories that drop you into the middle of pre-existing lives, so I was quickly hooked in by the few details of Alana and Kugler’s relationship.

Alana initially says their relationship ended because Kugler promised companionship and adventure, but then tried to tie her to a traditional domestic life. Later in the novel, Alana realises that she’s never been entirely honest with herself about the reasons they broke up. Her memories of their relationship encourage the reader to think about how difficult it can be to make space for a partner alongside work that consumes you. The reasons behind their separation are so complex that it would be wonderful to see them explored further. I’m all in for a Kugler/Alana fan-fic piece in the style of "Why We Broke Up".

Alana was the book's biggest draw for me. I just found her charming. She’s passionate about her work and desperate to experience more of the world – a dedicated dreamer who is easy to fall for. As she tries to push her life in a new direction she often makes mistakes, sometimes dangerous ones, but those mistakes and the way she deals with them endeared her to me. Perfect heroines are cool, but not that easy to empathise with.

"Ascension" drops Alana into the middle of a well-knitted crew. Surprise - my interest in domestic SFF settings informs my feelings about a book! Put a group of interesting people who have feelings about each other on a space ship, leave them to play house, and you’ve probably secured yourself a life long fan. More domestic times in space would be greatly appreciated. Ascension presents an untraditional family group and winds them together until they reach what looks like a crisis point. Instead of shattering this group on the jagged rocks of monogamy, the book chooses the path of polyamory and connects everyone even more tightly. By the end of the book nearly everyone is making out with everyone. Now that sounds a like an ideal Firefly storyline.

I’ll admit, at times this novel got a little bit too wrapped up in its excitable cloud; a little too exuberant even for me. "Ascension" has a tendency to get tied up in sweeping purple prose when it tries to convey the wonders of existence. ‘Together we sizzled, froze, illuminated, and ignited at once, unfurling ourselves into an endless procession of alternate realities, each one with limitless possibilities.’ Not really to my taste I’m afraid.

I find it hard to envisage how marvellous the universe and everything in it is unless it’s framed by small details. I need specifics to bring the grander side of life into sharp focus and the beauty of ordinary reality to help me understand magnificence. I preferred the closer detail scenes in this novel: Alana showing Tev the plants she’s saved; Marre’s face changing to bees and muscle as she stands over Alana; Tev working out in the gym before telling Alana how she lost her leg. I do sweat the small stuff when it comes to fiction.

Still, I look forward to the cast’s reunion in book two. More Tev, Alana, Slip and Ovie mixed with adoring glances at a spaceship and talk of shape shifter babies. Sometimes there’s nothing quite like a big bowl of literary ice cream.

Supplementary Materials

Olivia Waite - K is for Jacqueline Koyanagi

Other Reviews

Liz Bourke
The Literary Omnivore
The Book Smugglers
Foz Meadows

Date: 2014-05-07 03:33 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<blockquote<i>') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

<blockquote<i>I find it hard to envisage how marvellous the universe and everything in it is unless it’s framed by small details. I need specifics to bring the grander side of life into sharp focus and the beauty of ordinary reality to help me understand magnificence. </blockquote>

Perfectly phrased.

Date: 2014-05-08 06:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've seen this book pop up on blogs all over the place, and everytime I see it I say, oh I really must read that. But compare it favourably to Firefly! It's moved up a notch on the "I wanna read this book" list.

Date: 2014-05-09 12:54 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Good-o! I'll remember to grab it when I'm next at the library. I think I read about this one in some kind of round-up of books that could be compared to Firefly. :D

Date: 2014-05-09 12:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Sorry! That was me! I didn't mean to comment anonymously.


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