Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publish Date: 4 August 2020
Page Count: 342 pages
Being one of my most anticipated reads of 2020, I’m so happy to share my review of The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis for my last post of #SciFiMonth!
I first heard about this book, which is described as a queer The Handmaid’s Tale set in space, shortly after joining Book Twitter. This concept had me immediately excited, so much so that I interviewed Linden way back in July.
The life of a book blogger being what it is, my copy has been sitting patiently on my shelf ever since. I finally had time to check it out this week, and I’m pleased to say that I loved it!
In The First Sister, Earth has been abandoned for other planets in the Solar system. The traditionalist Geans of Mars are at war with the Icarii, the settlers of Mercury and Venus whose discovery of hermium has led to rapid technological advancement. Out in the Belt, Asters have become an altogether new species through extensive genetic modification, and they are shunned by both factions.
Lito val Lucius is a Rapier; one half of an elite Icarii military unit who share a mental link and fight together flawlessly. But after Ceres falls to the Geans, Lito is disgraced and his Dagger Hiro goes missing. One year later, Lito is given a chance to redeem himself when he is assigned to a new mission: find and kill the traitor Hiro.
On the Gean flagship Juno, a new captain aboard means First Sister is threatened with losing her status within the Sisterhood. If she loses her title, any member of the crew can demand not only confession from her, but the use of her body. To protect herself and her position, the priestess agrees to spy on the new Captain, the fabled Hero of Ceres.
The first thing that struck me about The First Sister was the dark sci-fi setting that Lewis has created. Between grey-clad priestesses in spaceship chapels and Ironskin battle-suits, this novel has a vaguely gothic atmosphere that I love.
The second thing was that I had absolutely no idea where the story was going. I don’t necessarily mean in a plot-twisty way (though there are a couple of corkers), more so that I didn’t know what direction the book was taking until very late in the game.
This is partly down to the well-written blurb which (for once) doesn’t give too much away. It’s also a credit to Lewis’ flair for pacing and progressive worldbuilding. While The First Sister is more intimate and character-focused then I expected, Lewis’ imaginative and complex setting is slowly revealed throughout the book, adding further detail and scope.
The defining concept in this first instalment of The First Sister Trilogy is the Sisterhood and its representation of rape culture, which Lewis says was partly influenced by The Handmaid’s Tale and the #MeToo movement. It’s worth noting that there are no rape or sex scenes detailed in the book; the idea is portrayed more insidiously. Rather than focusing on individual perpetrators, Linden describes the unsettling control that government and religious organisations possess over individuals’ bodies, as well as the harm of a complacent society. This idea of a person’s body being violated by an institution is echoed throughout the story.
An interesting counterpoint to this theme is the fact that the Icarii, Geans and Asters are selectively inclusive – the queer characters in the story don’t face any discrimination for their gender or sexuality. This optimism perhaps makes this story a bit easier to digest, but also draws focus back to the idea of institution as villain, and tentatively suggests the possibility of social revolution.
The First Sister also draws focus to family relationships, the value we place on them, and the sacrifices we make for them. Among the several complex relationships in the book, I found the unique intimacy between Lito and Hiro particularly moving.
The First Sister is a relatively short sci-fi novel weighing in at 342 pages, and I will admit there were a few aspects of the book that I wanted to continue learning about. However, it packs a punch, and I’m confident that these things will be further developed in subsequent books. It’s an impressive debut, and Lewis doesn’t shy away from challenges like writing a protagonist who can’t speak, or another who is developed mostly through a video transcript.
The First Sister is out now, and the sequel The Second Rebel is due out August 2021. Check out the US covers above – I can now absolutely justify collecting this trilogy in both US and UK editions.
I have to add, I just noticed a Goodreads comment where R. F. Kuang compares this novel to Mass Effect, which seems to be my new criteria for favourite sci-fi reads. I’m going to finally start playing Mass Effect tonight before my week of annual leave is over!
Trigger warnings: Child abuse, death of family, reference to rape
Support independent bookstores and my blog by buying from bookshop.org