*shoves face into pillow*
I gotta take a minute because whew that was… Amazing. Draining, because fuuuuUUUCK, but amazing.
Combining the social commentary of The Handmaid’s Tale with the white-knuckled thrills of Red Rising, this epic space opera follows a comfort woman as she claims her agency, a soldier questioning his allegiances, and a non-binary hero out to save the solar system.
First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.
Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.
“A stunning and sweeping debut novel that explores the power of technology, colonization, race, and gender, The First Sister is perfect for fans of James S.A. Corey, Chuck Wendig, and Margaret Atwood.”
I received an ARC and reviewed honestly and voluntarily.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
Content warnings include: violence, death and graphic injury, amputation, PTSD, denial of bodily autonomy in various ways (prostitution, plastic surgery, neural implants, experimentation, gender expression), blackmail, execution, untreated mental illness, dysphoria, implied torture.
Mentions of child abuse.
The First Sister was gripping, chilling and immediately engaging from the very start.
All three protagonists have their own exciting plotlines that are entirely different in mood and character arc, yet all equally compelling. I loved them individually, but slowly realizing how their plots converge, seeing threads that seemed entirely separate merge and combine, was amazing. It was masterfully done and a pleasure to read.
The titular First Sister is the first of the three protagonists. Despite not having a voice, she is not at all passive or forgettable. Her plot and personal character arc isn’t centered around her having no autonomy to speak of due to the religious position she was sold into as a child, though it obviously affects her position and how she is viewed. Instead it focusses on what she can do despite it all, and her hopes and dreams and what it means for her to have the chance to articulate and follow them after she meets Saito Ren, the new captain of the ship she serves on.
Lito sol Lucius is the second protagonist, an elite soldier punished for a failure he had no part in causing.
His punishment is a mission that turned his former partner Hiro a traitor, as well as finding Hiro and killing them. Lito’s path is littered with impossible decisions, fast-paced action and stomach twisting discoveries.
The third protagonist is Hiro val Akira, former elite soldier turned traitor and child of one of the most powerful men in the universe. Their chapters are told as recordings they sent to Lito, and they are a lot more personal and introspective, focussing on their shared past with Lito, their dysfunctional family and a lot of reflection on their mission for peace.
I loved the world-building and setting as much as I loved the protagonists. It creates a future after humanity expanded beyond earth, and after multiple wars has split into the religious Geans, inhabiting Earth and Mars, and the technologically advanced Icarii who live on Mercury and Venus. There are also the Synthetics, AIs who rebelled against their creators and vanished into the depth of space, and the Aster, an oppressed people that after genetic manipulation have become a human subspecies. Plot wise it’s centered on the Icarii-Gean conflict around a dwarf planet, as well as several major key players in the fight around it, but it ends up extending so much farther and in a very different direction than I expected.
It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. Even aside the violence of war, pretty much every single character lacks autonomy about their own life, particularly their own bodies, be it they be forced into prostitution, muted, given unconsensual plastic surgery, or invasive neural implants to make them controllable. There’s toxic hierachic dynamics, human experimentation and oppression, and untreated mental illness.
The latter is my only complain about the book. Neural degradation can occur as side effect of a neural implant and is mentioned as serious and something that must be treated immediately, yet it is pretty much brushed off in multiple instances without really being addressed.
I liked the #ownvoices nonbinary representation through Hiro. They were an amazing character. However, I was extremely uncomfortable by some of the things Hiro was made to do, though that ties in with them being denied agency over their own body – which is something that all protagonists struggle with. They were not singled out due to their gender, and I wouldn’t say that it’s a story specifically about or glorifying queer suffering. Not when all characters, queer or not (though most of them are queer, actually) are suffering.
To be more specific of the queer rep: Hiro is nonbinary, The First Sister is bisexual (both #ownvoices rep) and Lito is panromantic asexual.
Speaking of representation, I liked that it was not a western-centric view of human future. The most spoken languages in the galaxy are Chinese, English and Spanish. While First Sister is a white orphan, Lito has Italian and Spanish ancestors, Hiro and Saito Ren have Japanese ones, and they frequently speak the languages they were raised talking.
While the official blurb mentions falling in love, The First Sister very much is not a romance. Please don’t go in expecting one – you will be disappointed. Relationships are very important to the plot, but romantic love and a couple’s HEA are not a focus whatsoever. The relationships I liked best were Hiro and Lito’s as a partnered soldier pair and close friends, and First Sister and Ringer, who is her only friend who she can turn to for comfort (though, hoooooo boyyyy, let me tell you, their dynamic did NOT go in the direction I thought it would.) Found family as such is a theme too, though the plot is more in the foreground.
The ending is satisfactory, but leaves a lot of space for a sequel, and I for one will be crossing my fingers very energetically for one!
Check out the book on Goodreads and pre-order/buy it here. Release date is August 4th 2020. (I hope the cover on Amazon will be updated because the one I got on my ARC is SO BEAUTIFUL and what originally drew me to the novel.)