So excited to read this new YA novel from Charlie Jane Anders. Previously I read her debut, All the Birds in the Sky, which I thought was full of fun, quirky writing and good ideas but whose ending didn’t quite gel. Victories Greater Than Death, I was hoping, would deliver the same kind of quirky entertainment but with an overall plot that was more focused and more satisfying. In this sense, it succeeds. However, there are still aspects to this book that didn’t work great for me.
Tina Mains might look like your average human teenager, but she is actually the alien clone of a dead war hero. She was left on Earth as a baby, with a beacon that would activate when the time came for the aliens to reclaim her and restore her progenitor’s memories in a bid to finish a war they didn’t want to start. When this finally happens, Tina is excite: she has been preparing for this her whole life. Yet the reality is, as it always is, so much more complicated and disappointing than the anticipation fantasy. Along with her best friend, Rachel, and a few more brilliant recruits from Earth, Tina finds herself in a strange position on an alien spaceship trying to stop a mad supervillain from genocide. You know, no big deal.
There is a zaniness to this book that reminds me of 1990s science fiction, and I love it. We need more of this. The diversity of alien species reminds me a lot of John Scalzi’s writing (although, as with a lot of science fiction, including Scalzi’s, the exposition required to populate this universe can occasionally get out of hand). Anders approaches her alien societies with a sense of playfulness. One of the things I most appreciated was how the Royal Fleet, despite its name, is not particularly hierarchal. There’s a Captain and an Alternate Captain, but after that, most people have job titles instead of ranks. I think a lot of our modern science fiction is still hungover from the hold that military SF took on the genre after the success of things like Star Trek. Nothing wrong with those series, of course, but I like that Anders deliberately tries to imagine a very different approach to organized, multi-species space travel.
Similarly, another stand-out feature of this book was the inclusion of pronouns. Apparently it’s a function of Anders’ brand of universal translator, which can infer your pronoun—both the standard human ones like she, he, and they, as well as some neopronoun or more alien pronouns like wey. I’ve been a fan of sharing my pronouns since before I realized I was a trans. (Wow, that sounded like such a hipster thing to say, lol.) Seeing this on page was very powerful.
Finally, Anders normalizes consent and asking before touching. Every time a character is upset, other characters ask, “Can I hug you?” before they do so. This is so valuable to see modelled, particularly in a YA book—consent is important, even when your touch is meant to be comforting, because some people are touch-averse or simply don’t want to be touched by you in this moment. Showing young people that it’s ok to decline, and that it’s important to ask, is good.
The characters of Tina and Rachel and their relationship are interesting and one of the best features of the book. I felt Rachel so hard, especially the week that I read this, which was a No Good Very Bad Week indeed. Tina is extroverted and gregarious, whereas Rachel is, like me, an introvert who needs to recharge by herself a lot. The balance in this relationship, the fact that Tina respects Rachel’s boundaries so much, and that the other members of the crew also respect them, is awesome. Again, Rachel helped me see myself in science fiction in a way that isn’t always present on page or screen. Moreover, while Tina has a romantic subplot in the works, her platonic relationship with Rachel is clearly the most important relationship in this book, and I love this!
I liked how Anders avoids making Tina into a Mary Sue who inherits her progenitor’s skills, knowledge, and reputation automatically. Without going into details, let’s just say the cloning process turns out to be … flawed. This leaves Tina struggling to live up to the memory of her progenitor even though she isn’t quite this person. It’s a weird, thorny issue of identity, and I think Anders handles it very well.
The other human characters are less memorable and, while certainly not stereotypical, somewhat one note. Elza might be the exception. Love the casual inclusion of a trans character, of course. The fact that she comes from so much trauma and that it makes it difficult for her to integrate into this new situation is an important distinction from the other humans whom Tina and Rachel recruit. At the same time, however, I wish the book had given Tina and Elza more opportunities to explore this in the depth it demands.
Indeed, my criticism of Victories Greater Than Death is mostly about the plot and pacing. I breezed through this book in just over a day, mostly because I was enjoying it so much, but also because it’s just not that long. I appreciate that we aren’t forced to wait around on Earth very long before we meet the aliens. Nevertheless, the story flies through Tina and Rachel’s acclimation and induction into the Royal Fleet’s conflict with the Compassion. It doesn’t give us much time to digest the magnitude of this conflict. There’s your usual Forerunners who left powerful tech lying around, ancient enemies, all that jazz—as far as science fiction ideas go, things are pretty standard from here on out.
So, I enjoyed Victories Greater Than Death and recommend it to people who like quirky, compassionate science fiction and as a YA novel in general. That being said, there’s still something about Anders’ writing style, about the choices she makes in terms of plot and character, that leaves me a tiny bit unsatisfied.