Review: Some Desperate Glory
, by Emily Tesh
Some Desperate Glory
is a far-future space... opera? That's
probably the right genre classification given the setting, but this book
is much more intense and character-focused than most space opera. It is
Emily Tesh's first novel, although she has two previous novellas that were
published as books.
The alien majo and their nearly all-powerful Wisdom have won the war by
destroying Earth with an antimatter bomb. The remnants of humanity were
absorbed into the sprawling majo civilization. Gaea Station is the lone
exception: a marginally viable station deep in space, formed from a
lifeless rocky planetoid and the coupled hulks of the last four human
dreadnoughts. Gaea Station survives on military discipline, ruthless use
of every available resource, and constant training, raising new
generations of soldiers for the war that it refuses to let end.
While Earth's children live, the enemy shall fear us.
Kyr is a warbreed, one of a genetically engineered line of soldiers that,
following an accident, Gaea Station has lost the ability to make except
the old-fashioned way. Among the Sparrows, her mess group, she is the
best at the simulated combat exercises they use for training. She may be
the best of her age cohort except her twin Magnus. As this novel opens,
she and the rest of the Sparrows are about to get their adult assignments.
Kyr is absolutely focused on living up to her potential and the attention
of her uncle Jole, the leader of the station.
Kyr's future will look nothing like what she expects.
This book was so good
, and I despair of explaining why it was so
good without unforgivable spoilers. I can tell you a few things about it,
but be warned that I'll be reduced to helpless gestures and telling you to
just go read it. It's been a very long time since I was this surprised by
a novel, possibly since I read Code Name:
for the first time.
Some Desperate Glory
follows Kyr in close third-person throughout
the book, which makes the start of this book daring. If you're getting a
fascist vibe from the setup, you're not wrong, and this is intentional on
Tesh's part. But Kyr is a true believer at the start of the book, so the
first quarter has a protagonist who is sometimes nasty and cruel and who
makes some frustratingly bad decisions. Stay with it, though; Tesh knows
what she's doing.
This is a coming of age story, in a way. Kyr has a lot to learn and a lot
to process, and Some Desperate Glory
is about that process. But by
the middle of part three, halfway through the book, I had absolutely no
idea where Tesh was going with the story. She then pulled the rug out
from under me, in the best way, at least twice more. Part five of this
book is an absolute triumph, the payoff for everything that's happened
over the course of the novel, and there is no way I could have predicted
it in advance. It was deeply satisfying in that way where I felt like I
learned some things along with the characters, and where the characters
find a better ending than I could possibly have worked out myself.
Tesh does use some world-building trickery, which is at its most
complicated in part four. That was the one place where I can point to a
few chapters where I thought the world-building got a bit too convenient
in order to enable the plot. But it also allows for some truly incredible
character work. I can't describe that in detail because it would be a
major spoiler, but it's one of my favorite tropes in fiction and Tesh
pulls it off beautifully. The character growth and interaction in this
book is just so good: deep and complicated and nuanced and thoughtful in a
way that revises reader impressions of earlier chapters.
The other great thing about this book is that for a 400+ page novel, it
moves right along. Both plot and character development is beautifully
paced with only a few lulls. Tesh also doesn't belabor conversations.
This is a book that provides just the right amount of context for the
reader to fully understand what's going on, and then trusts the reader to
be following along and moves straight to the next twist. That makes it
propulsively readable. I had so much trouble putting this book down at
any time during the second half.
I can't give any specifics, again because of spoilers, but this is not
just a character story. Some Desperate Glory
has strong opinions
on how to ethically approach the world, and those ethics are at the center
of the plot. Unlike a lot of books with a moral stance, though, this
novel shows the difficulty of the work of deriving that moral stance. I
have rarely read a book that more perfectly captures the interior
experience of changing one's mind with all of its emotional difficulty and
internal resistance. Tesh provides all the payoff I was looking for as a
reader, but she never makes it easy or gratuitous (with the arguable
exception of one moment at the very end of the book that I think some
people will dislike but that I personally needed).
This is truly great stuff, probably the best science fiction novel that
I've read in several years. Since I read it (I'm late on reviews again),
I've pushed it on several other people, and I've not had a miss yet. The
subject matter is pretty heavy, and this book also uses several tropes
that I personally adore and am therefore incapable of being objective
about, but with those caveats, this gets my highest possible
Some Desperate Glory
is a complete story in one novel with a
definite end, although I love these characters so much that I'd happily
read their further adventures, even if those are thematically unnecessary.
Content warnings: Uh, a lot. Genocide, suicide, sexual assault, racism,
sexism, homophobia, misgendering, and torture, and I'm probably forgetting
a few things. Tesh doesn't linger on these long, but most of them are
on-screen. You may have to brace yourself for this one.
Rating: 10 out of 10