Book review: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

One of the great delights of reading, indeed of the consumption of any kind of pop cultured medium, is coming across a story that absolutely reinvents, emboldens and breathtakingly refreshes the genre of which it’s a part.

When it happens it constitutes one of those wondrous moments when you realise that while there may not be anything particularly new under the sun there are some hugely talented people who manage to rearrange the blocks so well that it feels like there is.

Emily Tesh is one of those people with the magically original touch with her novel Some Desperate Glory doing a stunningly good job of taking the epic, time-travelling, multiverse-occupying space opera and giving it a lease of life so obviously extraordinary that it’s like a 90-year-old in a nursing home has sprung out of their chair like a twenty-year-old and sprinted down the street with adrenalised, enthusiastic urgency.

So brilliantly well does Tesh tell her impressive tale that she joins a sizeable number if hugely impressive modern sci-fi authors who are telling wraparound stories so immersively big – think Peter F. Hamilton. J. S. Dewes, Adrian Tchiakovsky and Octavia Butler to name just four – and with such enveloping emotion and audaciously affecting, that you wonder at the ability of people to tell stories so lightly escapist and yet so emotionally and meaningfully substantial.

‘Just so we’re clear,’ Kyr said.

‘Of course,’ said Yiso. ‘It’s all right, Valkyr. I don’t need you to care about me. I need you to care about–injustice.’

Kyr’s breath caught.

‘And I know you will,’ Yiso said. I know you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.’ There was a strange note in their fluting voice. Kyr thought it was happiness.

It’s a thrillingly satisfying execution of not the writing art but the sci-fi genre in just about every instance, and Some Desperate Glory, the title alone which conveys so much with so few, well-chosen words, feels like the sort of story that consumes you so completely when you’re reading it that the world, and rather fittingly the galaxy, outside of the room in which you’re reading, ceases to exist for the duration.

Centred on a universe in which the Earth has been destroyed, along with 14 billion inhabitants, by an alien race who in every other respect are learned and respecting of life, though not without their faults, humanity exists only, so our protagonist, Valkyrie aka Kyr Marston is led to believe, on one hollowed-out asteroid where a society has developed that is so rampantly militaristic and fascistically intent that it puts any of its authoritarian predecessors to shame.

The thing is, of course, that for all the people on the asteroid, some two thousand in total, not a great many when humanity once numbered in multiple tens of billions on Earth and sundry colony worlds, their life of ceaseless training, bearing of children for the noble cause of humanity’s survival and pillaging of passing alien traffic which is treated with no respect (as is fitting says the leadership of what is known as Gaea Station) seems quite normal.

Kyr thinks nothing of it, dedicating herself to improving her fighting abilities at every turn, eschewing any recreation time offered to her as a waste of time barely worth of her contempt.

(courtesy official author page)

It is, without a doubt, intense and so immovably in place that she fully expects it to endure for years to come, humanity’s last redoubt secure in a miniature world where aliens cannot ruin or destroy them (though you could argue that much of what made people special has been lost to fanaticism such as family, community and arts & culture and indeed anything that doesn’t serve the militarily saturated greater “good”.

Then, as so often happens when things seem unassailable and immovable, events conspire – fearsomely good warrior Kyr is relegated to Nursery to pump out children for twenty years while her brother Magnus is consigned to a mission that surely dooms him to death – to begin to rip all of this certainty of existence and purpose apart, and along with her brother’s acidicly genius friend and captured alien who is far more clever and in touch with the universe than they first appear, she sets off on a path that will shred to nano particles everything she has ever known.

It turns out that the universe she’s been told exists is nothing at all like the one that’s actually out there, and while there are undeniably terrible things that happen again and again and again, there are also truly magically and affecting moments of transcendent wonder and vitalising connection that take her militarily one-track mind and heart and reshape it in something altogether classically more human and far more willing to entertain the existence of a galaxy where so many more things are possible than she could have possibly imagined.

The fearlessness Kyr had once inhabited now seemed like an idiot’s castle, with walls built from fantasy and self-delusion. She’d grown used to feeling fear, this time round. She’d felt it for everyone, even for herself. But as their small squadron charged through the bridge’s double doors Kyr discovered her fear had evaporated entirely. She felt not the fragile, irrational conviction of invincibility that had fueled her on Chrysothemis, but a solid confidence in herself and her people. Ten years of dragging the Sparrows through the agoge and Kyr knew them. She knew they could win.

The brilliance of Some Desperate Glory lies not simply in its fulsomely realised characters and it’s ability to be simultaneously action-oriented and emotionally intimate, but in the way it weaves so much social and political commentary into its narrative without once weighing it down.

The storyline is densely packed with all kind of insightful observations on the place of women in society and the way political narratives are spun that have no relationship to reality and which benefit only the few, not the many, and how fascistic control can warp not only whole societies but individual connections between people who end up relating not just on the basis of actual human need but propagandistic lines that prioritise a governing lie over relational truth.

Some Desperate Glory has a lot to say about these issues and so much, and its appeal lies in the way it always does from a wholly humanistic viewpoint, from the way it affects and warps people, and not from some tub-thumping, pulpit-gesturing polemic that cares only that the message is conveyed and not what its corrosive consequences might be.

That’s largely because this immensely clever novel which does some very smart things with space and time is at heart a tale of one person facing impossible realistions and odds who has to remake her entire existential outlook on the run all while trying to save a galaxy that bears no relationship to what she thought she knew, and whose unpredictability and raw humanity might just be the best thing to ever happen to her (that is, if she survives it all).

Related Post