Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders
Victories Greater Than Death, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor Teen 978-1-250317315, $18.99, 288pp, hc) April 2021.
It goes without saying that I’m not exactly the target audience for Charlie Jane Anders’s new YA trilogy, which begins with Victories Greater Than Death. But, as I’ve argued before, there’s a huge overlap between YA and SF readers. A good deal of classic SF works perfectly well as YA, and some tropes are essentially the same in both genres: geek valorization, children with secret powers, nonconformist outsiders and conformist bullies, clueless teachers and dim authority figures. All a successful YA novel really needs to do, then, is turn its adult readers willingly into YA readers, and with SF readers that’s not a very tall order: it’s simply a matter of tweaking the protocols. In the case of Victories Greater Than Death, which for most of its length is a slam-bang space opera, you wouldn’t ask the same questions you might ask of Alastair Reynolds or even of Anders’s own The City in the Middle of the Night; instead you learn to appreciate the tonal (if not thematic) echoes of everything from Daniel Pinkwater to Buffy to Steven Universe. If a Midwestern mom is resigned to the knowledge that her teenage daughter is actually the human clone of a famous space warrior about to be pursued by alien murder squads, or if a shipload of varied aliens with perfect translation devices are so amiable that they hand over major functions of their damaged warship to a gaggle of geek-genius human teens, then that’s just the story-world we’re in.
The teen daughter in question is Tina Mains, who can barely wait for the interplanetary beacon embedded inside her to activate. She’s an outsider in her high school, and her only real friend is the gifted artist Rachael, who has opted for home schooling after being repeatedly victimized by the usual mean-girl and bully contingents. The first signs that Tina is about to realize her destiny come when she experiences a terrifying dream, and later a vision, of a skull-faced monster threatening to kill her. This, we eventually learn, is Marrant, a former ally turned ruthless warlord who is essentially Thanos with a better jawline; his touch not only reduces a victim to a puddle of goo, but infects the memories of all who knew the victim with contempt. Not long after these visions, Tina and Rachael find themselves pursued by those alien assassins and rescued by the crew of the Indomitable, who, despite representing a colorful range of aliens and humans, are all careful to introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns. Tina, we learn, is actually the legendary hero Captain Thaoh Argentian of the Royal Fleet, but something seems to go wrong with her transformation, so that she retains her own identity while gaining Argentian’s knowledge, but not her personal memories.
When Rachael decides she doesn’t want to go back home, the ship’s captain obligingly gives her a crew assignment, and then she comes up with another idea: since the skeleton crew is already so overextended, why not recruit more teenage supernerds from Earth? By a convenient coincidence, the Royal Fleet already has a mechanism in place to identify candidates, and soon Tina and Rachael are joined by a brilliant gamer from Mumbai, a 15-year-old Cambridge PhD in physics, a Chinese musician and roboticist, and a hacker from Brazil who’s been held back by blatant sexism. None of these kids seems to show too much regret about leaving behind their unrewarding earthly lives; it’s like “The Women Men Don’t See” for space nerds. Together, they comprise what we might call the fellowship of the stone, since the mission the kids face involves retrieving a powerful artifact called the Talgan Stone before the genocidal enemy, ironically called The Compassion and led by Tina’s nemesis Marrant, can get hold of it. What follows cheerfully echoes not only familiar pop-culture properties from The Last Starfighter to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but reaches all the way back to Heinlein juveniles and 1930s space operas, complete with nifty if inexplicable gadgets like momentum gravitators, quants, ion harnesses, and plasma cannons. Anders has gone to some lengths to work out a consistent space opera universe that will no doubt unfold in subsequent volumes – this one ends on what amounts to an after-the-credits cliffhanger – and to introduce into this universe a more diverse and gender-fluid set of scrappy kids than those ancient predecessors would have dreamed of. The result, not surprisingly, is a fair amount of colorful nonsense, some occasional tender moments of insight into these kids’ lonely lives, and a lot of fun.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the March 2021 issue of Locus.
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