Monday, March 20, 2023

Review: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

 A surprisingly emotionally complex novel about the stories we are told about the world around us, and how those stories survive contact with our own experiences of life.

Kyr has grown up on Gaea Station knowing that she and her fellows are the last scraps of humanity, their asteroid the solitary bastion of a destroyed world and culture, holding out against a hostile universe that killed their planet. She's one of the best fighters of her generation, and knows she's destined for one of the elite military roles when she finishes her training. Kyr is, more or less, happy with her lot.

Then her brother, her shining, perfect soldier brother, disappears, and she's relegated to a role she never thought would be hers. Everything about the life she thought she'd live and the world around her comes crashing down, and she is forced to seek out her brother's strange, irreverent, potentially seditious friend and a captive alien to find the answers to her newfound questions. When she leaves the station that's been the only home she's ever known, she begins to understand that what she's been taught is only part of the story, and that the world outside her own is a more complex place than she ever thought possible.

Unsurprisingly, given the title, Some Desperate Glory is a story about war and propaganda, and about the complexities of conflict. It's a story about the beliefs we're raised with, the stories we tell ourselves to survive, and growing up to realise that maybe, just maybe, what you've been taught isn't necessarily all that's out there.

It is also a stunning, surprising, intensely compelling novel, and an unflinching character view of someone with some really quite unpleasant beliefs.

It is a story that asks - what would it be like, to be someone brought up to believe the propaganda? What would it be like, to think you're the best of the best, and have a duty and a destiny to fight, to kill, even if triumph is beyond you, because everything outside of your own little world is evil, and lesser, and alien, in a literal and a figurative sense?

It's not a fun story, let me put it that way.

But, difficult and uncomfortable though it is, it is a fascinating story and a unique one, and not just because of its chosen character perspective. Tesh plays with our expectations throughout the story, and balances some interesting chronology choices - the closest parallel I can think of isn't another novel, but the game Bravely Default - and, critically, the gorgeous prose that made Silver in the Wood such a joy to read. Though here she's bringing to life the dull corridors of a space station, the algal bloom on an alien world and the vivid experience of fighting for your life in a simulated battle, something of the wonder that she wrote into the woodland of the Greenhollow duology is still here. There's a magic to the world she writes, and it brings a joy even to the grim and gritty parts of the universe she's written.

The pacing too, and those interesting chronology choices, are well handled (though they may not always seem it in the moment). Reading as an e-book, I had a couple of double takes, thinking the book was almost over and then... oh not there's 40% left? Huh? But once you reach the end, it all slots into place, and I honestly cannot fault the choices. Trust the process.

And this is all great, but in my opinion, the truly, bafflingly best bit of this whole story is the character of Kyr herself. Because Kyr... isn't very nice. Kyr isn't good, or pleasant, or particularly likeable. She's definitely not charming. On paper, Kyr is primed to be hateable. And yet... I never could. I was so embedded in her thoughts, in the way she was experiencing the events of the story, that I could never find it in myself to truly rage at her, not matter how much I disliked or disagreed with her opinions and actions. More than any sad emo boy with a sword, Kyr is an anti-hero how they ought to be done, morally tainted to her core and thoroughly compelling in her journey.

Because the book is, for the most part, about that emotional and moral journey Kyr is undertaking. It's not quick, it's not easy, and it makes it all the more satisfying, because the reality of these sorts of changes isn't the lightswitch moment of revelation we get in many stories. People don't become different people overnight. People don't necessarily become different or better people for the right reasons. Sometimes it needs to be personal for them to see what's really going on, no matter how we may judge them for it needing to be there.

Though we are settled very firmly in her perspective, this doesn't cut us off completely from the other main characters, all of whom bring something to the table and play off each other really well. Kyr's squadron mates are an eclectic bunch, and being able to see how they relate to Kyr - sometimes before Kyr realises it for herself - is really enjoyable. Her brother isn't the most exciting man in the universe, but his friend certainly makes up for that, and provides one of the best counterpoints in opinion and just vibe that Kyr gets through the whole story.

And it's a book that's really thinking about how the environment would shape the characters. They all fit - or do not - so perfectly in the world that made them, and it's very clear why they've become the people they have, responded to the pressures of the world as they have. Whenever I come to imagining them all, I can only think that Tesh has put so much careful, considered deliberation into who and how they all are, and it's great.

Which is somewhat my overall impression of the book - down to the last detail, it has been considered and thought over and examined from different angles to make sure each piece fits neatly into the whole. 

Safe to say, then, that I loved the book. But I don't think it's going to be one for everyone. There are moments in the story when we have to watch something really difficult occurring, and deal with the fact our perception of it as the reader isn't necessarily going to align with our viewpoint into it. You have to be willing to sit with some ugliness, some just wrongness, to get through past it and see the story for its value in the end. Which, for me, was worth it, and at no point did I feel like Tesh was letting you think those opinions were right. There's no apologism here. But that doesn't always make it easy or worthwhile, so if you're going in, go in aware that it's not a happy fun light joyful time.

But if the grim and awful - which gets, at times, really grim and awful - and sitting inside the head of a character thinking deeply unpleasant thoughts at times is something you can get through? I truly think this is a fantastic book, and likely set to be one of my best reads of the year.


The Math

Highlights: interesting chronology choices, a proper morally grey main character and a real sense of thoughtfulness about the political landscape of the space future world

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference:  Emily Tesh, Some Desperate Glory [Little Brown Book Group, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea