“Violet City” An Empty Attempt at A Story of First Contact

When an alien invasion takes root in New York City, Pen Simmons, Violet City‘s teenage lead, remarks that it’s “like a big budget space movie has come to life over our heads.” She uses this point of reference often, as the novel progresses and its plot unfolds. Dead bodies roll down the pavement like stunt doubles, the destroyed city looks like a post-apocalyptic film set, and when she first encounters one of the aliens, beginning a tenuous alliance that later turns into something more, the whoosh of air rushing from the airlock of a spacesuit first enters her ear as something she’d only heard before in sci-fi movies.

It seems a trivial detail, but in terms of what it reveals about Violet City‘s execution as a work of science fiction, it’s critical. Page Morgan, ultimately, relies on the reader’s knowledge of pop culture as a crutch in building both the landscape of post-invasion Manhattan and the internal logic of the world of the Volkranians, her species of coldly logical, ruthless invaders. Rather than a deliberate entry into the genre, it feels like a collection of details assimilated from like sources––the vague trope that people panic in disaster informs every glance we get of post-invasion New York City, while the Volkranians are aliens of the wholly expected Vulcan variety: formal-speaking, human-faced, and only a hair’s breadth away at all times from offering up an explanation eerily similar to “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

This isn’t to say that alien invasion concepts have to be wildly original in order to be valid––rather that in Violet City‘s quest for broad appeal and familiarity, it neglects the opportunity to introduce something new. Even the execution of the book’s central hook, the budding romance between Pen and one of the invaders, whom she nicknames Rowan, is expected, snagging on conflicts even a casual viewer of sci-fi could predict at a glance.

The book also suffers from a severe dearth of proper scaffolding with regards to character: though it’s perfectly readable and its pacing moves at a fast clip, there’s something off at the heart of its planning, and it doesn’t reveal itself until the final act, where Pen takes several almost existential risks, and they all ring hollow because there’s nothing the story equipped her with that she lacked in the beginning. Though character work like this takes the back seat to the action of most stories, its skillful implementation is essential: a protagonist must substantially change, and the obstacles they face must be the catalyst for their doing so.

In one of the most important early scenes, however, Violet City has Pen jump to defend the life of an alien she doesn’t even know––and succeed. From there, though it’s clear the author wants to write a character whose morals and worldview change after getting close to the enemy, the approach has nowhere to go. Because the book opens by showing the reader that Pen is willing to act to protect one of the aliens, and can work up courage in the face of mortal peril, it renders all of the objections Pen has to doing the same later on entirely obsolete. Nothing’s at stake in the event that Pen fails. And the threat that she will is virtually nonexistent.

From here, it doesn’t matter when either of the major characters’ lives are in danger. It doesn’t matter when Pen gets the chance to abandon her shaky alliance and doesn’t take it. It doesn’t matter when ships crash or shots are fired or action tears through the pages. The story, in its construction, wants for everything a narrative needs to breathe.

When movies destroy landmarks and level city blocks, they do it because it’s a shortcut: when cities that loom large in popular imaginations turn to rubble on-screen, it evokes at least an echo of what a story would otherwise have to do to awaken that feeling. In some regard, it must work––after all, screenplays keep using it. But a shortcut is no substitute for real groundwork. I may have seen plenty of what happens in Violet City in a movie before, but that doesn’t mean it cuts closer to me once it transpires here. In fact, that might be the very reason it doesn’t.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy.

Photos by Andre Benz and Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash.

Space Pirates and Price-Gouging in “Starflight”

Melissa Landers’ 2016 follow-up to her extraterrestrial foreign exchange student trilogy, Alienated, tragically ditches the contemporary element to make a full dive into space-operatic adventure. Starflight is the work of someone with a deep affinity for Star Wars, no doubt, and conveys some of those warm and fuzzy forged-family feelings––but something is undeniably lacking.

Melissa Landers’ 2016 follow-up to her extraterrestrial foreign exchange student trilogy, Alienated, tragically ditches the contemporary element to make a full dive into space-operatic adventure. Starflight is the work of someone with a deep affinity for Star Wars, no doubt, and conveys some of those warm and fuzzy forged-family feelings––but something is undeniably lacking in the plot department as it concerns a rocket-fuel-laundering scheme and some questions of world-building. As a space romp, common wisdom holds that some intrigue should be in store, but Starflight is almost character-driven to a fault: when it does answer act one’s questions, it mostly does so with an emphasis on efficiency and action, leaving much to be desired in the rich details supplementary to character that define works of speculative fiction. And Landers, by swapping out the present-day high school backdrop of her previous series, may have sacrificed her means to a laid-back, high-spirited series opener in the process.

Starflight opens with a promising set of foils: Solara Brooks, whose record is so tarnished and her funds so low that she has to enter indentured servitude on an outgoing vessel, and Doran Spaulding, heir to a gobsmacking technologies fortune and beneficiary of Solara’s dire straits. The dynamic between these characters at curtain is unbridled hostility, pure and simple. It even has a class component, which Landers cleverly teases at when an unexpected conspiracy charge puts the authorities on Doran’s trail and a series of increasingly chaotic decisions on Solara’s part reverse their fortunes and land them both on a sketchy pirate ship en route to unregulated territory. Solara now plays the wealthy heiress and Doran is comically shuffled into the part of servant.

What follows is an elaborate chase across hangars and tourist planets, pursued by pirates, bounty hunters, the government, and all manner of trouble.

If you can lose yourself in it, Starflight is an adrenaline rush of the hyper-speed variety, with just enough ready to crash at the present moment to keep your eyes away from the framework. When it’s not a dangerous trade with ruthless pirates for a much-needed part, it’s the secret a crew member has been keeping that’s suddenly back and wants her dead. The happenings––hijinks, shenanigans, catastrophes––never stop. As high-powered and rip-roarin’ as this setup is, it pries time away from the central plot that really demands the work, and this short term gain ultimately creates an unsatisfying resolution for the ur-hijinks that initially set it all in motion.

Doran Spaulding, no matter how much the burgeoning enemies-to-lovers dynamic demands, is still not entirely off the hook by the time the book resolves his conspiracy charges. This stems from a combination of factors, chief among them the sustained sidelining of this plot until the very end (the ensuing discovery abruptly smacking the reader with no warning) and Landers’ lack of commitment to the lawless and conflict-ridden galaxy she’s created––like cyberpunk, but with an escape hatch. This particular symptom doesn’t make itself known everywhere––Landers is particularly good at emphasizing the daily toll of being on-the-run, from stark spaceship rations to constantly being ready to jolt out of a planet’s orbit at a moment’s notice. Her commitment wanes, though, on a much wider scope.

As the ship where Solara and Doran have taken refuge approaches the outer rim, fuel prices, the work of the Spaulding empire, skyrocket. In one particularly affecting scene, Landers paints a portrait of life in the outer rim that’s downright punishing, but reform, when Doran himself considers the idea, is easy, obvious, and doesn’t present any significant obstacle. The pages spent describing the desperate state of affairs wouldn’t be a waste if these disparities––not to mention the vast gulf in wealth and opportunity between Solara and Doran themselves––were entangled with the fuel fiasco. But as it stands, Starflight‘s backdrop of inequality and infighting fizzles out without being examined. The intrigue that serves as the story’s foundation suffers in the opposite corner besides. As a result, the book’s aftertaste is empty, to a degree. You can almost sense the effect it might have had with a few stronger ties.

But the book is bolstered by a tight-knit ensemble, and one that’s given comparable attention to that of the romance. The crew of the pirate ship doesn’t make for a fast and easy found family, but one that develops slowly and with care––and not without conflict. By all accounts, this gradual and largely auxiliary element accomplishes the book’s most impressive feats of character. It isn’t simply that Landers is generous with the downtime it takes to form a bond: she also puts these platonic relationships through the ringer in a way that only romantic relationships in YA generally earn (if that). Trust is broken, boundaries are breached, suspicions are had. Despite the fact that Starflight adopts the “gritty” space-outlaw aesthetic without ever really paying for it, it manages to be truly charming. This is due almost entirely to the cast: beautifully crafted, and the perfect companions for such a wild ride.