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.
Warnings: sexual assault (forced sex work); body dysmorphia and transmisia; medical procedures performed without consent; physical and mental abuse; description of violence and gore; PTSD; loss of bodily autonomy; allegories for racism and slavery
The First Sister has a richly constructed world relying on a background of extensive history to give form to stories about agency, war, and the miliatry-industrial complex. Set in a far-futuristic world where humans have long colonized other planets and now the colonised planets have their own factions that war with each other, the monotheist Gaeans (who originated from Earth and Mars) and the polytheist-scientist-culture of Icarii (who settled on Mercy and Venus), the story of the book is narrated by three main protagonists, the eponymous-yet-unnamed First Sister of the ship Juno, Lito, an Icarii soldier, and Hiro, an Icarii defector. The Gaeans are at war with the Icarii who have more technological advances, and both of them trade with the Asters, a race of genetically-altered humans (one could even say they are evolved) who live in the asteroid belt and extract water which is a precious resource for both the factions.
The current battleground is Ceres, which was recently taken from the Icarii by Gaeans in a battle that led to a Gaeaen commander called Saito Ren been promoted as the caption of Juno. The First Sister, who had been promised retirement as his mistress by the former caption of Juno, is horrified to discover that he screwed her over (literally and figuratively) and that she is to continue being a priestess of the Gaean religion that has girls become comfort women/listeners/religious advisers to soldiers on their long journeys across space. Only the First Sister has the covetable position of not having to serve ALL the soldiers, but just the Captain, which she needs to keep at any cost if she wants to not have to on call for all the various soldiers, and with Saito Ren joining, she has to keep close to her. Unfortunately for her, the head of their religion, the Mother (equivalent to the Pope, I guess) wants her to spy on Saito Ren, but loyalty to your captain is one of the tenets of being a First Sister, which makes her role extra precarious.
Meanwhile, over in Icarii world, Lito has been released to active duty after he and his duelist partner Hiro, who were on Ceres during its fall, and is told that Hiro has defected and he is to find and hunt him down. Duelists are trained together from a young age at Icarii academies, and they are linked with a neural implant that they can use to emotionally connect to each other, so saying they were close is an understatement. Lito, whose young sister is still in Venus, has no way to refuse his orders, and is partnered with an older duelist Ofiera, on a mission to uncover some information about Hiro’s betrayal that takes him to Gaeaen airspace, and their path also leads them into Asters spaces on both worlds. He is sent some tapes by Hiro which are sort of a goodbye note explaining their actions, and what serves as the third PoV in this plot.
A common thread binding the three characters is the ways the world has taken away their autonomy and agency: the First Sister because as priestess she is not allowed to refuse the soldiers, and as First Sister she is not allowed to refuse her captain, and moreover she and all the other priestess have their voice taken from them, are not allowed to write and can only communicate in sign; Lito and Hiro, both being soldiers are duty-bound by their orders, and the latter even has no say about how the military will use them in their war, going so far as to traumatize a trans character. Each of their story arcs taken them from their place of helplessness to where they take charge of their own story: the First Sister by moving forward on her tightrope till she gets to a place where she can see the rotten underside of the world, Hiro’s journey told in retrospect but it still fills in for their character development, and Lito breaking free of his orders to fight for a cause he has been ignoring. And to top that, there is the whole subplot about the Asters, who are considered sub-class citizens, and aren’t able to ascend in society and face a lot of prejudice and discrimination in the supposedly meritocratic Icarri society, leaving them to take part in dangerous jobs that exploit them.
Lewis made an excellently constructed world and picked characters that tell the story from different angles, though I wish there was also an Aster PoV character since their people are a big part of Lito’s fight. The writing is quite good for the most part, and it shines in establishing and exploring relationships between the various characters, but it sort of fails at pacing. Somewhere around the mid-way of the book, I was still looking for how their stories would connect to each other and though there were hints, it takes too long to get to that action (it took me like a month to finish this book so I’m a bit miffed at this). Considering how the world-building was woven throughout the book, the pacing could’ve been better, but otherwise it was quite an excellent read, and I am looking forward to what book 2 brings us.
Is it diverse? mute sapphic main character who uses sign language; non-binary Japanese main character; minor queer characters
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Skybound Books, via Edelweiss.
Released on August 4, 2020