Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything–even destroying planets–to get their hands on her.
I was really excited to find this while I was looking for a book that had a protagonist with chronic pain for 2017’s Diversity Bingo. As a YA reader, I’m sometimes wary of reading books aimed at adults because they can often drag or have unnecessary sex scenes. This was not the case here. ASCENSION by Jacqueline Koyanagi is a tightly-paced read that somehow manages to balance lush descriptions, deep character relationships and an exciting plot.
I’m adding a new “details at a glance” component to my reviews. It’s unlikely I will apply this retroactively to preexisting reviews because I am a lazy person.
Details at a glance:
Series/Standalone: Seems like it’s supposed to be a series, but there are no other books
Author: Jacqueline Koyanagi
Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera
First published: 2013
Pairings: F/F, barely-there side M/F
Sexual content: One sex scene, others are implied
Rep: Impoverished, lesbian, disabled, black woman with locs and chronic illness & pain (fictional degenerative disorder); queer polyamorous LI with a prosthetic limb; queer polyamorous LI of LI, possibly Latina but unconfirmed; black supporting character with same chronic illness & pain as MC; supporting characters with science fiction disabilities; supporting black characters. There are also hints of unlabelled PTSD.
Ownvoices: No for black rep (author is Japanese-American), yes for polyamory, yes for PTSD, yes for chronic pain (author has fibromyalgia), possibly for queer rep as the author IDs as queer.
Unrelated to direct character rep, but worth noting: author is on the autism spectrum, in case anyone is looking for that.
Content warnings: Ableist language, suicidal ideation, dangerous weight loss and rhetoric (the word “anorexic” is used once but I don’t believe it’s a correct description), mass murder (deaths not directly witnessed), death of family members, body horror, detailed descriptions of chronic pain, apparent-but-not-real infidelity, trauma reactions that could be akin to PTSD.
Now, a lot of readers have complained that the plot gets shunted to the side in favour of developing character relationships. I didn’t find this to be a problem, personally, as the plot is neatly tied up anyway. It also seems this book may have been intended to be part of a series that hasn’t eventuated.
I really loved the detailed descriptions Koyanagi writes into this book, but I will admit I found some of them tiresome late in the book where the sentence structure started to feel a little same-y. It wasn’t a dealbreaker, but I did find myself skimming a little bit. The descriptions were definitely better-executed earlier in the story.
The protagonist, Alana Quick, is really a compelling character and her complicated relationships with family and starship crew are at the heart of this story. Two of her most important relationships are those with her spirit guide sister, Nova, and her love interest, Tev. Alana is stubborn and at times impatient, but she is a brilliant engineer with a spiritual connection to starships that she has been chasing her entire life. I wanted to shake her sometimes when she made downright terrible decisions, but just as often I admired her tenacity.
She and Nova are often at odds because of the different ways the two of their use their spiritual talents and their different approaches to life itself. Alana evidently feels that she has been set up as the lesser sibling, fed by her belief that her sister looks down on her for making different choices in life. Alana isn’t less talented than her sister because she chose to use her latent abilities for something else, and part of her journey throughout this novel is realising that. Being a sky surgeon is as much of a spiritual experience for Alana and being a spirit guide is for Nova.
TW for dangerous weight loss and what could be eating disorder rhetoric. Also, a little spoilery:
Part of the tension between the sisters comes from Nova’s spirit guide attitude towards her own flesh. I wanted to call it an eating disorder but I don’t think that’s quite the right word for it. Basically, Nova, like most spirit guides, believes in starving away her body so she can ascend to a higher plane of existence, leaving the trappings of her perfectly healthy mortal flesh behind. Obviously, Alana has several issues with this, in part because she doesn’t want to lose her sister and also in part because Alana herself has a degenerative physical illness and is therefore incredibly frustrated her sister is doing this to her own healthy body while Alana wants nothing more than to keep living.
I can’t really comment on how well this is all executed because I don’t have an eating disorder myself.
TW ends here.
I wanted to discuss the above in some detail so people with these triggers can decide whether they want to read this book or not. It’s extremely important to the plot so there’s no avoiding it entirely.
As I mentioned in the content warnings, there is also a smattering of casual ableist language, especially of the sanity-based variety. I’ve read worse, but still. It’s frustrating.
This book, however, is also a prime example of the great work that happens when authors are given a platform to write about themselves. Alana’s chronic pain is woven into the plot and absolutely influences her capacity to deal with problems that arise. She is beholden to medication to remain functional, but it’s not a magic cure that stops her from feeling any pain at all. The cause of Alana’s chronic pain is a fictional disease called Mel’s Disorder, but it’s clearly rooted in real experiences with pain. She is not cured through the process of this story, and the concept of a Magical Fantasy Cure, a trope that pops up in SFF sometimes, is thoroughly deconstructed as much of the plot revolves around taking down the story world’s equivalent of Big Pharma.
There is a lot to like about this book. The writing, the relationships, the unabashed queerness, the chronic pain rep. There are triggering elements, but if you’re okay reading them, this really is a good book.