Put simply, Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension is one of those books that marks a change. The cover alone seems to say, ‘this is science fiction unlike what you’ve read before.’ After reading it I can attest that notion is fulfilled, although not exactly as I expected. The first novel from Prime Books’ new digital imprint, Masque Books, Ascension is equal parts science fiction and romance.
Alana Quick is a sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines stopped paying the bills when Transliminal and their new fangled inter-dimensional technology came along. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her sister, Nova, Alana stows away hoping for a chance to ply her trade among the stars. Her trip proves to be more than engine repair.
Nova is the target of Transliminal, and they’ll do anything to get Alana’s sister. With a chief engineer who thinks he’s a wolf, a pilot who fades in and out of existence, and a captain Alana can’t keep her eyes off, it’s up to the Tangled Axon and her crew to stop them. Heavy on relationships and character choices, and less on science fictional adventure, Ascension is a solid novel made very good by its passion for diversity in fiction.
Koyanagi’s science fiction theorizes inter-dimensional rifts have allowed new technology to bleed into the galaxy. The technology seems to fall directly from Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Discovering how it works, or at least why it works, is the plot MacGuffin that provides the narrative drive. In other words, it is the vehicle by which Koyanagi rolls out her characters and their interactions with one another, which, unless I’m grossly misreading the novel, is entirely the point. The nature of the interactions are revealed over the course of the novel, but are at least hinted at in Koyanagi’s bio.
Her stories feature queer women of color, folks with disabilities, neuroatypical characters, and diverse relationship styles, because she grew tired of not seeing enough of herself and the people she loves reflected in genre fiction.
Unfortunately, the novel’s back cover seems to minimize what is a major part of the novel with, “. . .there’s little time for romance. . .” Because there is, in fact, a lot of time for romance in the pages of Ascension. Alana can’t stop lusting after Tev, the aforementioned Captain, and Tev seems well taken care of by the Tangled Axon’s doctor, Slip. There’s also the Tangled Axon herself, who Alana is particularly taken with, constantly running her fingers along its rivets and joins.
While I found this compelling and well executed, I suspect some readers might find their expectations misaligned. Ascension is first and foremost a love story, not the default for many science fiction readers who tend to expect the adventuresome. While there is some adventure, and a bit of wonder in the book, it is most definitely on the back burner. Koyanagi is far more concerned by her characters’ leaps of faith and the relationships they develop.
As a novel of Alana saving her sister from Transliminal and their machinations, Ascension is good, but not special. It is well written, but will not be remembered for its deft manipulation of genre tropes, or kicking off some new literary style in the genre. What it will be lauded for is Koyanagi’s insistence on serving an under-served segment of science fiction readers. Although I considered whether to even mention the gender make-up or diverse lifestyles Koyanagi deploys in Ascension, I came to the conclusion I had to. They propel what is otherwise middle-of-the-road science fiction into something more significant. Koyanagi’s depictions, along with a dramatis personae that flips genre expectations on their head (there is one male character), make Ascension stand out.
Moreover, it reminds me why independent presses will always be important. Big publishing, particularly in genre spaces, is less likely to take a chance on something like Ascension, but Sean Wallace, Paula Guran, and Natalie Luhrs will. It is a novel desperately needed in a field littered with same-same narratives. I applaud Masque for bringing Ascension to market. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for more like it.
In the meantime, Jacqueline Koyanagi has written what many in the field have been calling for. We should probably make sure it sells, shouldn’t we?