The First Sister is a book that really highlights the importance of a good ending. The twist at the end transforms a good, solid science fiction debut into a brilliantly clever book with layers upon layers of hidden meaning. I’m already looking forward to seeing where Linden A Lewis takes these characters next.
The story alternates between three points of view – the titular First Sister of the Gaens, Lito sol Lucius, a warrior in the Icarii military, and the warrior’s ex-partner, Hiro val Akira, now apparently turned traitor. The latter’s perspective is entirely in the form of audio recordings sent after their defection, in which Hiro tries to explain to Lito why they defected. These are initially the weakest section of the book, but improve as it goes on – and in hindsight they were necessary to make the story as great as it is.
The Gaens are a strongly religious sect formed of the humans from Earth and Mars. The head of their religion is the Mother, she who communicates with the goddess. The Mother sends disciplines, named Sisters, to every Gaen holding, be it planet, moon, or spaceship. The sisters are ranked, with the most senior sister on every holding named the First Sister. The First Sister we follow is on the spaceship Juno. We join her as she has manoeuvred to leave the Juno with the commanding officer, joining him in retirement on Mars – however, before she can do so, the spaceship is taken over by Commander Saito Ren, leaving her trapped. She must quickly gain Saito Ren’s favour to retain her rank as First Sister – but her fellow Sisters want the perks of being First Sister too, and the supervising Aunt, Marshae, has a task for the First Sister which could ruin her forever. Sisters cannot speak – only communicate in a sign-language known only to members of the order – and it’s fascinating how this shapes First Sister’s interactions. She spends the vast majority of the novel in way over her head, but she gradually grows in confidence and its amazing seeing how she develops. Linden A Lewis doesn’t shy away from how traumatic her life in the order has been – a distinct theme of the book – and how this has shaped her personality and thought processes. I’ll be very interested to see how she develops further in the sequel.
The Icarii consider themselves superior to the Gaens and Asters, the main other races, with a strong emphasis on scientific and military dominance. They are formed of the humans who colonised Mercury and Venus, finding a unique element which allowed massive technological innovation. Lito sol Lucius was born to a lower class family but won a highly prestigious scholarship to join the Icarii Special Forces. He feels pressured to prove himself and avoid falling back down the ladder – but after surviving a disastrous mission on the moon of Ceres, he’s one step away from disgrace. His latest mission is one that he completely detests – but he has no choice but to accept it for the safety of himself – and more importantly, the safety of his younger sister. Lito is the complete counterpoint to First Sister – where she is cerebral, spending all her time in thoughtful contemplation, Lito is a whirlwind of action, preferring the simplicity of battle to the complexity of conversation and politics. However, he is also a very emotional character, struggling to recover from the loss of his partner Hiro – and more than that, the knowledge that Hiro was a traitor. I felt for Lito just as much as I felt for First Sister – they both lack any real freedom to make their own decisions, forced to work for a regime they were increasingly disillusioned from.
Hiro is a more interesting character than Lito, and in a way it’s a shame that we only get their story through recordings. The middle child of the Val Akira’s, the scientific leaders of the Icarii, Hiro has never been what their father wanted. They finally find somewhere they feel that they belong – fighting alongside Lito as dagger and rapier – but their position as a Val Akira gives them knowledge that Lito isn’t privy to. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but Hiro’s story is the most tragic of them all. I hope that we get more time with Hiro in subsequent books because they’re a fascinating, strong character with an intriguing backstory not utilised to their full potential here.
The worldbuilding is gorgeous – I loved the premise of two factions of humans who separated to such an extend that they considered themselves almost separate species, and a third faction who literally became a separate species through extensive genetic modification. It’s a brutal world, and that isn’t glossed over, but fascinating to read about. Lewis includes great LGBTQIAP+ rep including non-binary characters and attraction to multiple genders, and the world isn’t Western-centric – the main languages are now English, Spanish, and Chinese, and Hiro and Saito are both of Japanese descent. Lito has Spanish roots. Far future science fiction can be difficult to make realistic, but Lewis does an excellent job, including incredible technology with vague plausibility (even if the element discovered by the Icarii does sound a little like it came out of a Marvel comic).
It starts slow, needing time to get going. There is a fair amount of exposition needed to paint a picture of this very different future world, and while Lewis handles this well, it can still be tedious. Hiro’s initial sections – flashbacks to distant past events – don’t feel entirely relevant, and whilst they do later turn out to be, they’re still a little jarring at the time. However, for a debut novel, this is incredibly accomplished, and the ending is almost good enough to make up for everything else.
Overall, this is a great science-fiction debut of incredible scope that should appeal to all fans of the genre. I’m looking forward to seeing where is goes next. Highly recommended.
Thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review.
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 4 August 2020