Release Date: July 17, 2018
Received From: NetGalley
Aisha Un-Haad would do anything for her family. When her brother contracts a plague, she knows her janitor’s salary isn’t enough to fund his treatment. So she volunteers to become a Scela, a mechanically enhanced soldier sworn to protect and serve the governing body of the Fleet, the collective of starships they call home. If Aisha can survive the harrowing modifications and earn an elite place in the Scela ranks, she may be able to save her brother.
Key Tanaka awakens in a Scela body with only hazy memories of her life before. She knows she’s from the privileged end of the Fleet, but she has no recollection of why she chose to give up a life of luxury to become a hulking cyborg soldier. If she can make it through the training, she might have a shot at recovering her missing past.
In a unit of new recruits vying for top placement, Aisha’s and Key’s paths collide, and the two must learn to work together–a tall order for girls from opposite ends of the Fleet. But a rebellion is stirring, pitting those who yearn for independence from the Fleet against a government struggling to maintain unity.
With violence brewing and dark secrets surfacing, Aisha and Key find themselves questioning their loyalties. They will have to put aside their differences, though, if they want to keep humanity from tearing itself apart.
GENDER: cisgenger, transgender (secondary character)
SEXUALITY: asexual, heterosexual, pansexual (secondary character)
ROMANTIC ORIENTATION: aromantic, heteroromantic, panromantic (secondary character)
TROPES: double agent
TAGS: young adult, fantasy, science fiction, queer characters, hijabi character, Asian characters, South Asian characters, POC characters
WARNINGS: plague/illness, hospitalization, poverty, explicit medical procedures, nonconsensual medical procedures, ableism, body horror/body modifications, mental illness (panic attack, PTSD), religion (Islam inspired), anti-native language (“savage”), classism, child labor, mass death, mass murder, electrocution, corrupt government, population control/population purges, brainwashing, gaslighting, power imbalance, child death, explicit violence, slurs, gendered slurs, suicide mention
I had really high hopes for this book, and unfortunately, it just fell flat in a lot of areas, and was actually pretty harmful in some others.
First I’ll talk about what I liked.
In the novel, there’s a group of people called Scela, which are humans who take on mechanical enhancements for a multitude of reasons, and who act as a security/military force for the fleet of humanity’s ships, which have been travelling space for over 300 years in order to find a new, habitable planet. I was fascinated by the technology that Skrutskie built with the Scela and the multitude of ways in which it could be used. Related, for the most part, I liked the way Skrutskie used the Scela as a means to illustrate consent and how important it is. And how disturbing a lack of consent is. As regards the Scela and the government themselves, she did a great job of depicting the dichotomy.
But that’s also where we get into the things I disliked about the novel.
Each new round of Scela forms a squad, and part of their system and working in sync includes them being connected neurologically, thus putting them in each other’s heads and able to essentially read each other’s thoughts. However, this is not commonly held knowledge and the four in the squad–Aisha, Key, Praava, and Woojin–have no idea they’ll have to take part in this, and thus, can’t consent to it even though they (presumably) consented to become Scela. This could, potentially, have just been another aspect of Skrutskie’s depiction of consent versus a lack thereof, but instead, it’s where things start to be harmful in other ways. The first time the four are connected at the start of their basic training (roughly page 35), Praava is outed as trans. She did not consent, did not give any kind of permission to share this information–explicit or otherwise–, and she is not allowed a coming out scene. This further removes her autonomy and could be dangerous for her. It is a slap in the face to trans readers who have been forced to come out in some fashion, or who fear coming out in potentially dangerous situations. There is no care taken in the revelation of Praava’s gender, and I seriously considered not finishing the book after this scene.
Unfortunately, I continued and it only got worse.
Around roughly page 81, we have another coming out scene that is handled really poorly. The squad had been neurologically disconnected for the day, and in the evening, they’re reconnected. Aisha and Key are forced to witness memories of Wooj and Praava having sex during the day off. This is how we find out that Aisha is aromantic and asexual. She’s not able to consent to seeing this, as she has no prior knowledge of the event in question, and it is unceremoniously pushed into her brain once they all reconnected. This is a violent act of aro and ace hatred that should’ve never happened, and it certainly should not have been the scene where Aisha’s identity is revealed. And “I’m aroace so you don’t have to worry about this kind of stuff from me” is one of the most flippant parts of the whole scene, and Skrutskie should not have treated Aisha’s potential trauma as some kind of joke.
Furthermore, it’s treated as something for the other characters to disdain or be snarky about, as shown in this brief scene from around page 123:
He tries to worm around Aisha to stand between us, but she holds up a hand, catching him forcefully across the chest.
“Isn’t he off-menu for you?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.
“That’s not what this is,” Aisha snaps, just as Zaire says, “Why, jealous?” She bares her teeth at him, and he shrinks back. “Scram,” she mutters, and Zaire immediately turns tail and hustles down the hall.
This scene really bothered me because it was so unnecessary for Key to make that comment about Aisha and Zaire, in general, but especially knowing Aisha is aroace.
In addition to the poorly handled coming out scenes, I really was just super bored with a large part of the plot. It was your typical classist plot. The poor people suffer in the backend fleet ships, dealing with overpopulation, death, hunger, etc. while the rich people of the frontend ships live in the lap of luxury. And I was able to figure out, as early as page 39, that Key obviously had no memories because she was part of the Fractionists (the group seeking revolution) and the people in power captured her, wiped her memories, and forced her to become Scela as punishment for daring to rebel against them. With her memories wiped, she frequently spouts violently classist vitriol that made me flinch away from my screen, and so I can only imagine how it would be living inside her head as a poor person. Similarly, she is always shown as the one to have more knowledge than the other three (all POC) who are either poor and/or a criminal.
Additionally, there’s this moment from around page 82 that was pretty upsetting:
“If all four of us are going to share heads, we can’t be allowed to wrench secrets away from each other. Some things we should be able to keep to ourselves.”
So, Key can keep all her secrets but it’s okay to out a trans character and force an aroace character to watch sex? Suffice it to say, I had a really difficult time liking her. And to be quite honest, I didn’t really care for Key or Aisha, the two narrators, until around the 87% mark of the novel. I was pretty ambivalent towards Woojin and Praava. The only characters I really liked were Malikah, Aisha’s 10 year old sister; Zaire, a human dockworker on the Scela base; Amar, Aisha’s younger brother who has one scene; and Marshal Jesuit, the squad’s trainer and leader.
As far as the POC rep and hijabi rep, I can’t speak as I am part of neither group. From what I could tell, the Ledic religion, seemingly inspired by Islam, was done well, but I will be looking out for ownvoices reviews. Doing some research on their names would seem to indicate that Key Tanaka is probably supposed to be Japanese, Aisha Un-Haad is probably Arab and South Asian, Woojin is possibly Korean (spelled Woo-jin according to Google), and Praava is most likely Indian–but none of these identities are ever specified.
All in all, as I’m sure you can tell if you’ve gotten this far, I don’t recommend the book. Obviously it’s up to others if they want to read it, and I’m not here to judge, but I can’t recommend it.
Emily Skrutskie is six feet tall. She was born in Massachusetts, raised in Virginia, and forged in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. She holds a B.A. in Performing and Media Arts from Cornell University, where she studied an outrageous and demanding combination of film, computer science, and game design.
Her short fiction has been published by HarperTeen, and her debut duology—made up of THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US and its sequel, THE EDGE OF THE ABYSS—is now available. Her third book, HULLMETAL GIRLS, will be published in Summer 2018.