Emily Tesh’s World-Fantasy-Award-winning Silver In the Wood and its sequel Drowned Country are deeply lovely books: quiet, yearning, and full of ancient straining curses and redemption. Tesh turning her novelistic sights to space opera is an event that should make every speculative fiction reader take note: Some Desperate Glory is a masterful take on survival and revenge and what’s beyond them. Fusing a youthfully-emotional story of personal and political reappraisal with giant, universe-altering ideas, this action-packed story stays locked on its vulnerable humanity.
The backstory, as we’re initially given it, is that humans fought, and lost, an interstellar war against an alien civilization. Earth is destroyed, and the remnants of humanity make their peace and resettle elsewhere—with the exception of Gaea Station, a last hold-out of idealistic warriors who have vowed resistance undying. Kyr, our protagonist, is an exceptionally gifted young woman on Gaea, eagerly awaiting her cohort’s first real assignments. When her brother unexpectedly leaves the station, Kyr sets off on a personal mission that ultimately leads her to challenge her most cherished beliefs—and necessitates a daring plot through multiple timelines and interpretations of reality.
Some Desperate Glory is an immensely fun, compelling read, largely because of how well Tesh uses Kyr to frame the story, and how well Kyr works as a main character. One of the most striking things about her is that in many ways she’s not particularly likable; while the biggest plot-level arc is Kyr figuring out the truth about Gaea, the more significant arc is Kyr figuring out that everyone thinks she’s a jerk, and that they’re right. Extreme competence coupled with misguided moral certainty does not typically make for likable characters, and the way Some Desperate Glory is able to pit those qualities against Kyr’s personal growth and revelation—without wholly discarding them—is a quietly impressive move.
And really, just one such move in a delightfully-crafted book: there’s something organic, even subdued, about how this universe works. Rather like a few other notable recent science fiction works—there’s some kind of family resemblance between Some Desperate Glory and works like Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb Trilogy and Martha Wells’ Murderbot books, and like them feels like a hit in the making—this novel assumes a familiarity with the genre’s conventions in a way that allows it to move more lightly than if it paused to explain how everything works. Tesh has a way of drawing compelling characters with a very light touch—one of the best parts of her Greenhollow Duology series—and uses that to situate Kyr among friends, enemies, and more complicated relationships with a sort of overcharged and youthful intensity. One of the most interesting oppositions in the novel is that between Kyr and Avicenna, the bitter computer expert who’s key to her schemes, and her evolving relations with her family, her teammates, and the hostage alien Yiso are what really power the story.
The trope of the righteous underdogs—a plucky band of heroes, battling against impossible odds—is a well-worn one within science fiction, and one obviously enmeshed in thickets of political metaphor. One of Chicago’s oldest science fiction book clubs, the venerable Chicago Nerds, grew so tired of this trope that they now discuss where a protagonist falls on an informal “pluckmeter.” Kyr and her allies are definitely on there somewhere; the novel is pretty firmly built along recognizable YA lines. So it’s something of a relief—though no revolt against that YA structure—when Some Desperate Glory turns its energy to first criticizing and then fighting the world Kyr thought was right and good; the back half of the novel is a very satisfying battle against patriarchal and institutional oppression, one that sees Kyr repeatedly overturning her world and worldview.
I was pleasantly surprised by how Some Desperate Glory incorporates multiverse mechanics—early hints of “Wisdom,” an alien technology capable of altering reality, blossom in surprising ways once Kyr escapes Gaea Station—and more so by the way Tesh constrains this idea. Too many alternate universes, real or imagined, have a way of draining the meaning out of narrative, and Groundhog Day-style loops, to be a bit redundant, risk feeling repetitive at this point. Here, Tesh maintains the stakes by keeping those limitless potentials in check—although I would add, a bit pedantically, that the existence of the same cast in drastically different timelines stretches belief.
What has sat with me most oddly, though, is the way that this story handles Earth’s destruction. For Kyr, who was born after the atrocity, it never feels like more than a symbol, which makes sense, but the way it’s reduced to a bare plot point feels wildly disproportionate to its imagined reality. The magnitude of that genocide, that ecocide, that erasure of past and future, is overwhelming, and even considering what justice for the murder of a planet looks like feels monumental—it left me thinking about science fiction explicitly exploring this topic, like Greg Bear’s Forge of God, as well as all the current climate fiction and non-fiction trying to get planet-scale grief and planet-scale justice thinkable at a human scale. Some Desperate Glory does not, at least at a surface read, seem to be engaging seriously with Earth’s loss, and I found that unbalanced and undermined its otherwise excellently-tuned stakes. The novel’s villains are definite creeps, deceptive and controlling, patriarchal and abusive, but I found their whole plotline massively overshadowed by that larger history—especially because Kyr, through the reality-altering gizmos of the book, is not absolved of its course.
Setting Earth aside, though, if one can imagine such a thing, it’s hard to overstate how good this novel is at what it’s doing. Some Desperate Glory takes tried-and-true material and elevates it remarkably—a compelling set of characters and a dynamic plot filled out with big ideas and rich detail. This feels like a likely award-winner, and at any rate, will probably be one of the most entertaining SF books of the year.
by Emily Tesh
Published on April 11, 2023
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.