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.

“Vengeance Road” and a Rocky Adventure Through the American West

Erin Bowman’s YA western Vengeance Road presents a secret gold mine, a dangerous gang of outlaws, and the dubious ethics of mining on stolen land.

Erin Bowman’s YA western Vengeance Road is about a secret gold mine, a dangerous gang of outlaws, and the dubious ethics of mining on stolen land. I made this collage; credits for the photos used here.

Kate Thompson, the brash, no-nonsense heroine of Vengeance Road is out for, well––vengeance.

Erin Bowman, whose first YA western tramps a rough and treacherous path through the not-yet-state of Arizona, must first be commended for how realistically exhausting she writes the journey to be. Present-day Arizona is known to well exceed pleasantness in degrees Fahrenheit, and Bowman mentions sweat in uncomfortable places and sunburn just often enough for realism’s sake: generously.

Kate braves these unfortunate conditions because a gang of outlaws, the Rose Riders, broke into her father’s homestead and killed him for information pertaining to a gold mine, hidden in the Superstition Mountains, in the southern part of the territory. This lode tip-off is news indeed to Kate, who’s lived in the shadow of this hushed secret all her life. With no other connections, and a mother fourteen years in the grave, Kate sets out to kill her father’s killers, and maybe to group up with an ensemble of lovable misfits on the way.

Bowman’s work on the setting in probably Vengeance Road‘s most notable quality. More than the revenge plot, more than its themes, more than its characters, the chase it depicts is just about as brutal as you’d expect, careful attention paid in full to the environment and its potential to be unyielding, all action stopped in its tracks for dust storms, injuries, unforeseen troubles. It isn’t imaginative in terms of pure originality, many of the tropes in Western being what they are: present. It is imaginative, though, in the sense that it has a wide capacity to imagine hardships, offering the very real perils of a vast trek through uninterrupted land in frank, un-flowery terms, conveying an uncommon experience that is as much lull and exertion as it is dramatic and decisive scenes of action.

True to its heroine, even the action in Vengeance Road is no-frills, the prose style sparse and peppered with dialect. It is committed to this, potentially even to a fault. The style doesn’t hamper the important emotional moments––in fact, it bolsters them and helps them register as genuine, the figurative and heavy-with-feeling sentiments rendered rare, and thus all the more powerful. Its pitfall is firmly in the action’s territory, the main attraction for westerns and a dire place for the novel to be lacking. This makes it so that when there is a plot-intensive reprieve from the walking, resting, and tiresome navigation that marks most of Kate’s story, it doesn’t read like one. The intrigue, conflict, and outlaws, barring their role in setting the plot in motion, aren’t really what the book is concerned with. Its heaviest focus is character. Its strongest scenes take place at a campfire, any and all gunfights and ambushes banished from the page. Sometimes, though, Vengeance Road still acts like the spotlight is on the mines, and the gold, and the life-threatening confrontations, which leaves the third act––and its strongest assets in character development, relationships, and theme––neglected. Not horribly, not irretrievably, but enough.

This has to do with the novel’s real zenith is and what its zenith was intended to be. First there’s a deeply moving sequence involving a supporting character, Liluye, and her tribe, the Apache. Without giving too much away, Bowman uses this sequence to interrogate, and, further, criticize some of the prejudices in her characters. The issue is further enveloped in an ethical quandary, about aid and to whom it is given, about gold and the moral bankruptcy it causes, about vengeance and whether or not it is worth it. This chapter in particular is reflective, and even spiritual, in a sense––the once firmly apathetic Kate begins to contemplate faith in a moment of desperation. The strongest writing in Vengeance Road is centered here, and is re-awakened in moments of contemplation elsewhere. By contrast, the big final confrontation is almost flimsy, perfectly acceptable at a less centered juncture, but wanting in terms of a climax. Here, where the mystery is revealed, we’re not nearly as invested in the intrigue as the book assumes we are. A late-stage villain reveal with some ties to the protagonist lands without enough buildup and is resolved away. Bowman does do clever things on the lives of subverting the “riding out with a death wish” formula, so the resolution survives, but doesn’t quite flourish.

The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe, Ally Condie’s dystopian with some western undertones, takes a similar route with a revenge setup, using themes that critique where it’s directed, and how it fails to blame who’s really at fault: Vengeance Road, instead of criticizing power structures the way Poe Blythe does, takes a much more personal route. Whenever someone patronizingly tells Kate that revenge is unhealthy, she scoffs, and rather than sic plot and character on her in an effort to reform her ways in a didactic and condescending tone, the novel essentially lets her have what she wants––only reframing it to make her wants ultimately more merciful in the end than sadistic. Even if the suspense pales in comparison to dialogue, this last word manages to make an impact, and to surprise.

Vengeance Road would probably benefit if more of its energy had been shifted into the wells of character––especially if the tension and introspection Liluye brings into the ensemble had been written into the earlier parts of the story, and some of the ethical issues more consistently present––this whole book is enveloped in a time period of rapid American expansion at the disastrous expense of the people already living here, after all. It makes an effort to tweak the Western in response to the genre’s more grievous sins in the past (re: sensationalized and prejudiced depictions of Native culture, glorification of violence, &c), but the formula proves particularly difficult to shake off, even in perfectly benign conventions like plot structure. Still, it’s an admirable effort, peopled by interesting and conflicted characters. But the revived Western won’t be returning to the canon anytime soon.

“The Black Key” Sticks a Shaky But Satisfying Landing

Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

A young woman fights to topple an exploitative regime in the final book of Amy Ewing’s Lone City Trilogy, The Black Key. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits for components used in a long trail of links starting with this post.

After two books of world-building and lead-up, The Black Key carries the corrupt royal leadership of the Lone City to its foregone conclusion: a decisive rebel victory. Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

As it takes the forefront in the third installment, Ewing’s long-awaited rebellion emerges astonishingly simple for all of the hopes resting on it. As it rages on and accomplishes its plans in a single day, the book introduces obstacles that our lead, Violet, and her ample, well-trained ensemble, efficiently push out of the way. In the darkest hours of her fight, no one is ever really cornered; no situation ever truly dire. Ewing gets her characters in trouble plenty, but in all save a few circumstances, it never truly sticks.

There’s reason, though, that the long and arduous process of a massive political shift is condensed in this book. The government Violet and company have to topple is a city with a very small elite and not a massive, war-ready national federation, and Ewing has one tool on her side that most authors in dystopia don’t: her rebels can use magic to literally move the Earth beneath their feet, and a massive united front of discontent for the taking. With a bit more complexity, a bit more flesh, a bit more bite, the rebellion in The Black Key could’ve been as compelling as its setup.

Instead, the finale doesn’t really make an attempt at that. The fighting is a seventy-page interlude at the end, occupying a strange middle ground between an afterthought in a trilogy mostly motivated by unspoken tension and pivotal conversations, and the ultimate focus in a story that is mostly about a coup. These two options don’t go well together, but this combination is what Ewing has to execute in her third act as a consequence of the vague last stand she kept alluding to on the horizon.

The character moments she truly excels at have to interrupt the action as it goes on, and as we endure descriptions of magic and all the havoc it wreaks, the endless violence, the movements of volunteer troops, there’s an ache somewhere for a final fate decided with groundwork, or with politics, or the backstabbing and deception book one does so well.

Tragically, this book approaches it, when Violet steals away into the ruling district, the Jewel, in order to keep an eye on the Duchess of the Lake, her old mistress. The plot never slows, however, to give her a second look, the way it did with the series opener. When a certain plot twist drops, in a character-driven scene during the final incursion, it lands without sufficient shock, exposing the Duchess’ softer side without providing ample justification. She’s woefully underdeveloped here, and makes for an unfortunate villain by virtue of it. With additional attention, maybe. But the Electress, an originally upper-middle-class citizen ascended to the throne by marriage (and, most likely, ruthless ambition to boot), hardly appears, though the loose threads of a plot from the end of The Jewel possibly could’ve facilitated it.

But where plot fumbles, Ewing’s work on the ensemble is in full form, as Violet has to tap into her empathy for other members of the working class, understand and negotiate the complicated world of the royalty with slightly more power this time, and confront the consequences of her rebellion and all it brings in closer, less abstract, more personal ways.

Because Violet is disguised as a servant in the Jewel, we see less of Ash, Raven, Sil, and all the surrogates they recruited in book two (a choice that results in less gratifying stories for the additional surrogates: Olive, due to her absence, gets the particularly short end of the stick). We see more of Lucien, Garnet, and Carnelian, though, and Ewing’s careful consideration of their circumstances is where The Black Key gets most of its insight.

Lucien, the high-ranking servant who’s been masterminding this whole rebellion business since the beginning, is a fuller and freer character than he’s ever been: if the rebellion isn’t all that complicated, its leader is. In this book, his role as an almost father-figure to Violet gets a more substantial chunk of the story’s attention, the toll this has taken on him creeping a bit more into view. Lucien’s actions in this installment are wholly and unquestionably defined by love, a motivation that would be distant, if not unthinkable, to the cynical, closely-guarded character we met in book one.

Garnet, another supporting player with an endearing and impressive character arc, gets really subtle and unique moments to reckon with his royal heritage including possibly the best moment of the book: the Duchess of the Lake’s “You’re with them? Fighting with whores and servants?” to Garnet’s, “Yes, Mother. I am.”

Garnet, having been shuffled into an uncomfortable arranged marriage, finds himself more devoted to the rebel cause than before, but keenly aware of the cost, particularly to the people around him. A few sobering scenes of this are enough to broaden the novel’s perspective: it becomes no longer about the downtrodden and oppressed rising up against their chains––now it’s that and the story of complicity at the top, with an entire class of people quietly suffering.

Carnelian, the Duchess’ niece, whom the Duchess constantly berates for her humble upbringing, also adds a tinge of flavor to this perspective, and becomes the fascinating, morally-grey figure that the Duchess herself once played. When Carnelian’s last moments in the novel come, though, they’re thoroughly earned. It’s enough to make you wish the rest of The Black Key were given that same luxury.

“The White Rose” Blooms in the Shadow of “The Jewel”

At the close of the first installment of Amy Ewing’s Lone City trilogy, Violet, a surrogate of the upper-class in a violent and corrupt dystopia, has just landed in scalding hot water with her mistress, the cruel and calculating Duchess of the Lake.

Young women prepare to seize control of an isolated dystopian government’s natural resources in Amy Ewing’s sequel to The Jewel, The White Rose. Collage by Pippin Hart. Photo credits for components used in this post.

At the close of the first installment of Amy Ewing’s Lone City trilogy, Violet, a surrogate of the upper-class in a violent and corrupt dystopia, has just landed in scalding hot water with her mistress, the cruel and calculating Duchess of the Lake.

For reasons that explicitly spoil the first book, The White Rose follow Violet and a downtrodden ensemble of other servants and surrogates as they flee the royal inner circle of the Jewel for a safe house in the vast, quiet farming district, with the burdensome strings of possible revolution attached.

All things considered, this second book follows the expected trajectory of a dystopian series fairly closely. The subtlety of The Jewel is quickly ushered away into the margins in favor of a much more explosive kind of storytelling––the first half of the book, at surface, is a ceaseless rush of running, hiding, and smuggling, with short interludes where the characters screw it up.

But on closer inspection, The White Rose still has richness to offer, even as the mystery and intrigue of the first book falls away.

The concealed-history reveal regarding the Lone City’s origins is what saves this installment’s world-building from falling to the wayside as the revolution plot takes the spotlight: even as Ewing draws conclusions for her novel’s current affairs, her use of history keeps adding to the dimensions of her world. Unearthing records becomes The White Rose‘s chief asset as it concerns plot twists, and Ewing’s choices in the dark past of her dystopian land on a familiar note that echoes the real world, but leaves enough room for the Lone City to become something of its own, without the burden of conforming to allegory.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the thing that sets Ewing’s series apart from other miserable un-futures is her addition of a magical element. In the first book, it’s a set of abilities called the Auguries that allow the surrogates to bear children quickly and with the royalty’s preferences for appearance. Here, though, a much deeper and broader outgrowth of the natural world comes to the fore, more like the Star Wars-style force than the codified skill system that the surrogates have been taught to exhaust and abuse.

The underlying truth behind the Auguries illuminates the failings in a system that treats people like products the way that the Auguries themselves and the pain they cause acted like a proxy for forced childbirth––bringing unspeakable pain to the physical realm, where it can be described, inspected, and reckoned with. In this regard, dark dystopia and fantasy fit together beautifully, with the technical, clinical, cold aesthetic going up against the ancient, natural one. In the plot to overthrow and exploitative royalty, Ewing decides to tap into something much older, lending her work the mystical power of a fantasy, while escaping, like Star Wars does, the call to fully explain the magic and its origins, and keeping a gritty, modern, sci-fi edge.

Violet’s doubts about her ability to tap into this power appear, logically, but this development’s shadows on the supporting cast are much more interesting and well-defined: the minor players and their pasts, hesitations, and ideas about the revolt are possibly the only areas where the second book notably exceeds the first.

Raven, the best friend Violet was parted from when she came into the service of the Duchess of the Lake, gets a comprehensive treatment in this volume, where we finally see the fabric binding them together more closely. As the sharper, fiercer foil to Violet’s more subdued strength, she has to come to terms with her own servitude and how completely it took those things from her, a subplot Ewing handles generously, and further enriches by pouring it into magic.

A few times, Ewing fails to commit to the scuffles the characters encounter as they make their escape from the Jewel––and uses Raven’s abilities to get them out unscathed––but ultimately, The White Rose doesn’t neglect her. The most vital relationship in this novel isn’t a romantic pairing; it’s the love between Violet and her best friend. It’s into this relationship that Ewing pours the heart-felt confessions, the sacrifices, the solemn promises, and as a result, the whole book benefits.

Garnet, the Duchess of the Lake’s ne’er-do-well (depending on who you ask) son, also sees a deep, thought-provoking character arc in The White Rose, Ewing combining his privilege with a desire to make amends that lends him both earnestness and biting self-awareness. Raven and Violet’s bond may be the most important character element in the book, but in a stunning turn of events, this sardonic agent of moderate chaos steps out to become book two’s scene-stealer, what, with his quips and surprising glimpses of heroism and slowly-emerging conviction. He’s like the Effie Trinket of this trilogy, mixed with a few extra drops of vinegar.

The truly wide range of characters in Ewing’s vision is beginning to show as one of her work’s closely-held triumphs. The rebellion on its own isn’t a particularly innovative use of the idea, but the wide array of characters and motivations she uses to propel it forward (and their begrudging cooperation) is very nearly worth it all. In a particularly valuable exchange, Ash, one of the characters on the run with Violet and company, brings up the girl he was hired as an escort for, the Duchess’ niece, Carnelian. He remarks on the fact that for all the heartache she caused them, she, too, has suffered at the hands of the royalty, and then says something that really expands the scope of the revolution, and gives it the means to matter. “We can’t choose who we free from them, Violet,” he tells her, as he comes into his own. “It has to be all or nothing.”