Jacqueline Koyanagi’s debut novel, Ascension, is beginning to generate a small amount of buzz, but it deserves much more attention. The hard Science Fiction world she’s developing, and the characters she’s created, are fresh and sharp. There’s a definite sense here of a writer who’s not afraid to think in grand strokes. If you’re going to announce your presence in a room as contentious as the SFF world can be, particularly these days, you’d be hard pressed to find someone taking as bold a step forward.
Alana Quick is employed as a space surgeon, but she’s never actually gotten the opportunity to get off-planet and into space. She loves working on the ships reaching deeper into the universe, and near desperate for a chance to get work up in the Big Quiet. She’s a classic gearhead, sometimes more drawn to tech than people, and adept at teasing out maximum performance from the ships she works on. Her desperation for more work is pushed harder by Mel’s Disorder, a chronic condition that makes pain management a major part of her daily life. When the Tangled Axon arrives, looking for her sister Nova, Alana sees an opportunity to get off-planet. She stows away, starting her relationship with the ship’s crew on the worst possible footing.
A significant strength of the story is in the way she presents the character’s relationships, and particularly Alana’s with her sister. Nova’s an in-demand spirit guide, which gives her enough wealth and power to make things very tense between her and the barely scraping by Alana. All the interactions between characters are where this story truly shines, as Koyanagi fills her book with rich, complicated people. The buzz I referred to earlier is around the diversity and complexity of her cast. How believable the characters are in their actions and behavior is a significant determinant of whether you as a reader embrace them, and Jacqueline Koyanagi is fantastic at filling in the emotional details of her characters. She creates three-dimensional people you’re eager to learn more about, but insists you do so on their terms. If there’s a key to her perspective, It’s in a discussion of the Tangled Axon’s current engineer, Ovie. In speaking about him, one character says, “People don’t exist for us to get.” The diverse background of her characters are an integral part of who they are, and how they interact. We’re invited to learn about them on their terms, rather than being presented worn-out tropes dressed in different clothes. She’s not just taking the standard Cis White Male Hero and swapping him with a Gender Queer WoC. Alana’s actions and choices are derived from the complexity of who she is, rather than being a boilerplate Sci-Fi hero fused on a unique frame.
The only small marks against Ascension for me were in pacing and detail. Koyanagi has a very visually descriptive style of writing, which frequently meant vivid descriptions of the strange tech and aliens encountered. This established rich contours to the world she created, but slowed the book down in the process. It also means, as a reader, there are more opportunities to see the seams of the reality she’s stitching together. Having said that, I do applaud her going big right out of the gate like this. I love when creators, regardless of their medium, swing for the fences rather than playing it safe. In general, creating a complex universe from the ground up often has areas one can nitpick, so the fuzziness doesn’t lessen my estimation there are more surprises yet to come from Jacqueline Koyanagi. Ascension is a strong debut, and I’m eager to see where she goes from here.