Recent Reading: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh
Kyr is humanity's vengeance. A genetically engineered super-soldier with superior strength, speed, and reflexes, raised in Spartan austerity on the isolated, militaristic Gaea station, trained in weapons and combat since childhood, Kyr and her cohort were born after the alien majoda, seeking a decisive conclusion to their war with humanity, destroyed the Earth. Established by a splinter group who would not accept humanity's surrender in the wake of this calamity, Gaea station has raised generations of young people to dream of revenge and retribution. On the verge of completing her training, Kyr, who has not only excelled in her own right but has pushed other cadets to better embody Gaea's ethos of military might and battle readiness, is certain of receiving a plum combat assignment.
It will not take spotting the literary reference in the title of Emily Tesh's excellent first novel for most readers to guess that some or all of what Kyr understands about her world is wrong. And indeed, the novel wastes little time in shattering her dreams of glory. Kyr's twin brother Mags, the perfect product of Gaea's pursuit of physical superiority, refuses his assignment and disappears. Her fellow cadets, as they leave for their own assignments, reveal that they never liked her, and that what she perceived as encouraging them to be their best was actually bullying. Then Kyr herself is assigned to Gaea's nursery, to produce the next generation of warriors rather than becoming one herself. When she learns that Mags has been sent to a nearby human colony to commit a terror attack, Kyr decides that she will prove her worthiness to be more than a brood mare by going after him, preventing, as she sees it, the "mistake" of wasting both his and her skills as soldiers.
There's a YAish quality to this setup that readers will no doubt find familiar. As she plans her escape, Kyr assembles a team that seems designed to challenge her preconceptions: tech nerd Avi, derided among Gaea's cadets for his physical weakness and his gayness (which Kyr regards, with smug superiority, as a sex obsession that denies necessary reproductive capacity to Gaea's war effort) who nevertheless sees through a lot of Gaea's manipulations and lies; and the captured alien Yiso, who, far from a fierce enemy, is gentle and unimposing, confused by the brutality he encounters on Gaea.
The more time Kyr spends among these two, then later in the human colony, and finally with Mags, the more she's confronted with details that complicate the history she's been taught. The ships from which Gaea station was built turn out to have been taken over in a bloody mutiny. The Terran military Kyr sees in recordings has a lot more women in positions of authority and command than she's been taught to expect. The women in the nursery, instead of being seen as soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice for the future of humanity, are treated like perks by the station's brass. And for all that Gaea's goal is supposedly to defeat the majoda enemy, Mags's mission seems to be more about hurting humans who don't want to do the same.
Familiar as it all is, Some Desperate Glory's handling of this material has a bracing quality, rooted in the fact that the person through whose eyes the story is being told is, well, a fascist. One of the most interesting choices Tesh makes with this novel is to convey, with intimate closeness, how alluring Gaea's mentality is to someone like Kyr. How, even though she's a product of brainwashing and indoctrination, she also goes along with it because she likes it. Having grown up strong and aggressive in a society that valorizes strength and violence, Kyr is happy to assume that she is innately superior, that people who are physically weak are worth less than her, that people who are queer are in some way selfish, and that anyone who does not abide by Gaea's ethos of endless war is a coward and a collaborator. (Kyr has also been trained to believe in the inferiority of women, and like a good fascist she simply applies that mentality to everyone but herself, taking it as a given that she is a special case.)
So unpleasant is it to spend time in Kyr's head that it's easy, at first, to miss the fact that there is more to her than this. Again and again, we see that her first, unthinking impulse when confronted with suffering and vulnerability is to help. She goes back to rescue Avi even when his utility to their escape plan seems depleted; she tends Yiso's injuries; she is unexpectedly hesitant to kill. Kyr herself is as surprised and confused by this tendency as the readers, and as little inclined to investigate it as she is any aspect of her upbringing, which makes it easier to ignore. But the more time we spend with Kyr—and the more we get to know Mags, who understands Gaea's flaws much better than his sister but is paralyzed by indecision and his own unhappiness, or Avi, who is a great deal more comfortable with violence and cruelty than either of the more physically adept siblings—the clearer it becomes that Kyr is more capable than either of them of growth, and eventually heroism.
Another bracing choice Tesh makes is not to reveal—as I think most readers will have expected—that the destruction of the Earth did not happen or was not the majoda's fault. As Avi puts it, everything about Gaea is a lie except the reason for its existence. The majoda turns out to be ruled by the Wisdom, a millennia-old AI with the power to bend reality, which operates with the directive to reduce suffering as much as possible. The Terran war—triggered by humanity's refusal to abide by the majoda's restrictions on the colonization of living planets—was perceived as an existential threat to this directive, and the destruction of Earth as the only possible solution.
It's a challenging revelation. We naturally want to believe that Gaea's worldview is entirely misguided, but their rage and unwillingness to accept the Wisdom's actions are hard not to sympathize with. And at the same time, everything we learn about Earth's society before its destruction makes it hard not to conclude that the Wisdom's concerns about it were justified. In Tesh's universe, humans are physically bigger, and more prone to aggression, than most other alien species. Their pre-destruction society was geared towards militaristic expansion and colonization. As horrific as the Wisdom's solution was, the novel leaves us no space to pretend that the problem it was responding to wasn't real.
Within the novel itself, this is an atrocity that nobody quite knows how to deal with. The majoda has embraced human refugees, granting them citizenship, amenities, and financial support, but all with a condescending, fetishizing gloss. For the humans Kyr meets outside Gaea, the destruction of Earth is almost a blind spot, something they can't acknowledge without risking a surrender to pain and rage. In the slums of the same city, anger at aliens and bitterness over the outcome of the war are openly expressed and threaten to boil over into violence. Yiso, who turns out to be one of the Wisdom's key operators, becomes intimately familiar with humanity's capacity for violence and cruelty, but still wonders whether there was another way. And Avi, for all that he hates Gaea, is also consumed by rage and bitterness towards the majoda, ultimately committing a horrific act of revenge against them.
In the hands of almost any other author, this act would be the climax of the first volume in a trilogy. But one of the many things that makes Some Desperate Glory a rewarding read is the speed and intensity with which it barrels through its plot. Avi's revenge comes barely a third of the way into the novel, and is followed by an upheaval that fundamentally changes the story we've been reading. Suddenly Kyr is a different person in a different world, where the balance of power is entirely different, but the logic of empire—the idea that sometimes it is necessary to commit atrocities so that everyone else can keep going about their lives—still holds sway. Once again Kyr finds herself with Mags, Avi, Yiso, and other people from her previous life, asking very similar questions: is this kind of cruelty necessary? Are humans inherently warlike and rapacious? Is her only value to the world as a soldier for one side in the dispute or another?
Then another upheaval occurs, and then another, with Tesh proving refreshingly willing to pull the rug out from under her characters' and readers' feet as soon as they start getting too comfortable in their present situation. It would be unfair to say much more about the convolutions of the plot, except that it ends up delving into some of the key questions that the space opera of the last decade has been consumed with. How does one achieve a just society? How does one respond to the threat of colonization and rampant expansion? Is it possible to create a benevolent, fair colonial empire? Kyr travels between worlds and realities, transformed in her essence even as she keeps adopting and abandoning different creeds, trying to come up with both a personality and a way of life that will allow her to save her friends and give her a world worth living in.
There are some downsides to this breakneck pacing. Kyr's personal growth ultimately comes to seem a bit unconvincing, given that the entire novel spans at most a few weeks. And towards the end there are some plot beats, mostly having to do with Kyr's relationship with Admiral Jole, Gaea's leader and her former mentor, that don't have quite enough space to fully develop. But for the most part, Tesh shows up a lot of other authors, dropping ideas that in another novel might have commanded whole chapters in a single line that nevertheless has a profound impact, while letting key concepts, like Kyr's deepening bond with Yiso, or the strangeness and alienness of the Wisdom, fully blossom, even across multiple realities and timelines.
In the end, Some Desperate Glory is the novel that most readers will have identified from its earliest chapters, the story of a brainwashed teenager who rejects the dogmas she's been raised with and becomes a hero in her own right. But Tesh's relentlessness with this story—her determination to break Kyr down completely before she can allow her to become her own person, her constant questioning of the horrific compromises and necessary atrocities committed in the name of a better world, her cheerful willingness to take her story's world apart again and again—allows her to make it her own. She earns the conclusion the novel gives its characters—Kyr's transformation, the world she builds for her friends and for all of Gaea, and the future they can now all have.