Review: ASCENSION, queer sci-fi starring Black lesbian mechanic who stows away on starship

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi is an incredible book full of facets I never imagined from just the blurb. I’m growing increasingly dissatisfied with blurbs lately; this marks the third book that took me forever to read because the back jacket made it sound like an entirely different kind of story than it was.

At its core, this is a book about two incredibly different sisters who come to understand each other more while dealing with intense issues of life, death, pain management, and space technology. It’s a book about grieving the loss of family and dealing with chronic illness–both of these written with such incredible truth (the author is herself disabled so that part just naturally rang true, and as someone who has lost plenty of family members I found myself agreeing completely with the protagonist’s description of her response and healing process.)

It’s also a book in which a bunch of space women (and one space man who is actually a space wolf; just go with it) wind up in poly relationships by the end. The “how did I get myself in even worse trouble than last time” narrator, a spaceship mechanic, is in love with the tough-girl captain, who’s dating the ship’s doctor, and it all works out foreverybody thanks to the author’s strong desire to see families like hers represented in science fiction.

I’ve seen it compared to Firefly, or “Firefly, except with disabled queer women, and more women of color!” (which includes the protagonist) but honestly that’s just a surface resemblance because of the spaceship setting, family of choice, and “fighting the Big Establishment” ethos. What really makes this book special has nothing to do with Firefly. It veers far closer into science fiction territory rather than space opera, exploring issues of multiple realities and the idea of bending reality itself. There are excellent plot twists, and the resolution of the book was an entirely different kind of scene than the “boss fight” I’d been expecting.

Related: what is it with lesbians growing plants out of their bodies? This is the second book I’ve read in 2016 where that happened and it’s not even March yet. Yes, it’s an awesome image. (The other one was in Chameleon Moon.) I won’t explain what happens here but it’s awesome when you get to it. Suffice it to say that during that entire scene, the euphoria experienced by the protagonist (who herself has been turned into some kind of… dinosaur? Dragon? Hey, I’m there for it. Y’all know me) totally reminded me of Shabbat at temple. I don’t feel bad about saying that even after the book reveals that the euphoria comes with its downsides, because my religious meditations are mild enough that I can, you know,leave shul when it’s time to go home. (If none of what I said makes sense, revisit this review after you’ve read the book.)

There are some awesomely poetic lines in this book; I loved it best when it got rapturous and songlike. I love how space is called the Big Quiet and “the silence.”

Trigger/content warnings for family members dying in  typical sci-fi catastrophe, a graphic description of why someone has a prosthetic, and mention of religious anorexia.

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About Shira

Queer Jewish feminist author
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