Caren Gussoff Sumption Reviews Loki’s Ring by Stina Leicht

Loki’s Ring, Stina Leicht (Saga 978-1-982170-63-9, $18.99, 512pp, tp), January 2023.

Surprising no one who reads my reviews, I’m a sucker for space opera, for feminism, and for family dramas. So, though it’s improbable (at best), it sure feels like Stina Leicht should have just “@ me” (as the kids say) about her newest novel, Loki’s Ring. It’s – literally – what I live for.

It’s not a perfect novel, but it is really strong and engaging, sciency and full of adventure, and one where nearly every single character identi­fies as female or nonbinary. The fact that the characters are female or “enby” does absolutely nothing to dilute the strength, engagement, sci­ence, or danger for me.

The novel stars a large cast (one thing this reader struggled with), but mainly centers on a Search and Rescue captain, Gita Chithra, as she receives a distress call from one of her two daughters, Ri. Ri, along with her sister, Ezi, are actually artificial humans, sentient intelligences Gita raised from birth. Independent artificial intelligences have been, in Leicht’s carefully constructed world, granted personhood, and live and work alongside humans, with all the rights and protections granted any sentient be­ing. In fact, it’s a lovely touch that Gita, shaped by her role raising her AI children, is especially careful to treat AIs as equals throughout the novel – for example, Gita ensures, at one point, to obtain consent from a malfunctioning AI before she performs an update on their memory.

Ri’s distress call is mysterious and evasive, because Ri has volunteered as a field agent for a shadowy agency headed by a family friend. But Ri is in real trouble, and begs her mother, along with Gita’s small, but accomplished crew, to rescue her from the vicinity of Loki’s Ring.

Loki’s Ring is an off-limits, heavily disputed megastructure. It’s theorized to have been built by long-gone alien species, and its purpose is unknown. What is known is that the Ring occasionally, and without warning, seems to “awaken” whenever any outsiders approach or land on it, and are either obliterated by laser-like mechanisms, or fall terribly ill from a strange contagion called GX-3714.

It’s a dangerous mission for a search and rescue vessel with no jurisdiction, but Gita is determined to save Ri. So, of course, nothing goes easily or well, and soon, other parties – mostly, a crew led by the hard-nosed Karter – are called in to assist.

Therein lies some of the family drama. Yes, Gita is saving her daughter, but the onus on fam­ily centers on found family. Karter and her crew were once all part of Gita’s crew. The close crew had parted ways after two other members were killed on a mission. There’s a lot of love between the two separate crews, still. But also a pile of pain and hurt that will need to be bridged in or­der for everyone to get out of this alive, because what started as a complicated, dangerous rescue quickly escalates into a diplomatic nightmare and a near war between competing corporate entities who wish to claim Loki’s Ring and to weaponize GX-3714.

As I stated, there are a lot of players in the novel. While it’s not a short novel, and there is plenty of room for the cloak-and-dagger Cold War-style intrigue to play out, I found it incred­ibly difficult to keep everyone and every faction straight. Some of that actually worked well, because it made the shifting alliances tactile; for a good part of the action, it’s hard to pin down who and what are the “good” guys (outside of Gita, who begins and remains flawed, but noble). Regardless, it required a lot of flipping back and forth to remind myself of who was whom. It’s possible, too, this is a quirk of my brain as well, but there were a few similarly-named characters (or so it seemed to my ear), such as “Mandy” and “Miranda,” which further complicated matters. I finally took a piece of paper and jotted a few notes, halfway through, and that helped quite a bit. Each of the characters is well-drawn, in­teresting, and, in quite a few cases, surprising. Not all the characters are young (quite a few are middle-aged), none are perfect, and all have histories. The impulse may have been an effort to humanize the hard SF elements, but the huge number of people and shifting points of view may frustrate some. I will say that Grimm, the resident cat with a device that allows him to speak, was an absolute favorite, and I wish that we’d had more time with him.

Worthy of mention, as well, is Leicht’s after­word. It’s the first I’ve seen that walks readers through the whole messy endeavor of writing and publishing a novel in the first place. Leicht pulls no punches: she is brutally honest about the joys and warts of the whole process, and it serves as a lovely way to, also, gain insight into her process. It’s a generous end to a powerful novel.

Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.

Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.

Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.

This review and more like it in the March 2023 issue of Locus.

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