The Book: “Ascension” by Jacqueline Koyanagi.
The Plot: A ship engineer stows away hoping to become part of a ship’s crew and is quickly caught up in bigger difficulties than she bargained for.
Autistic Character(s): The author! (As evidenced by, for example, her work for Disability in Kidlit during Autism Month.)
This is the second time I’ve reviewed a book by an autistic author that didn’t have any autistic characters in it. (The first was The Meeting of the Waters by Caiseal Mór). I honestly find these books pretty hard to review. It means I have to break my usual rule of talking only about the representation of autistic characters. How do I do that without being harder somehow on these books (or, conversely, easier) than I am on the others? I don’t know. It’s a work in progress. Bear with me.
I will admit I found “Ascension” rather difficult to get into at first. I bounced off the writing style – especially the way Koyanagi describes strong emotions, which I found telly and clunky. I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because once the protagonist gets on to the ship, there is a lot of shiny. A pilot who fades in and out of existence, an engineer who’s really a wolf, a planet of transhuman surgically modified partygoers, mysterious villains who will blow up planets to get their hands on the protagonist’s sister… Once you get into it, there is plenty here to keep a reader entertained.
There’s also plenty here for those readers who get excited by diverse and complex casts of characters (and, yes, that includes me). The crew, as well as the characters we meet elsewhere, are a diverse and boisterous bunch including many characters of colour, tough and sharply-drawn female characters, queer and polyamorous relationships, even an otherkin character (the aforementioned wolf).
In particular, Koyanagi does a good job of depicting characters with physical disabilities, including the protagonist’s own chronic illness. Alana lives with Mel’s Disorder, a fictional degenerative illness causing pain, tremors, and (if untreated) eventual death. Her disability doesn’t define her, but it does realistically inform the way she looks at the world and the type of difficulties she encounters while trying to stow away and become a ship’s engineer. Being a poor, working-class character, Alana also encounters plenty of conflict simply trying to obtain the medicine that will keep her alive.
Alana’s sister, Nova, is able-bodied and well-off, working as a glamorous “spirit guide”. The conflict between Alana and Nova, which initially comes off as shallow, becomes much more complex and interesting when their attitudes towards their bodies come into play. Alana fights to inhabit her body and to live her life to the fullest despite pain; Nova has a horror of anything merely physical and uses anorexia to try to escape her otherwise-healthy body. While this conflict isn’t explored quite as fully as I would have liked, it is explored and the book’s eventual resolution reconciles the sisters in a perhaps surprising way.
It’s not a perfect book. The writing IS telly. But I think a lot of my readers are going to really enjoy what Koyanagi is doing here. In particular, if you are hungry for better depictions of characters with disabilities in general – real, breathing, complicated disabilities – you’re going to eat this right up. Koyanagi is providing something people need, and I have no doubt she will continue to do so in the future.
The Verdict: Recommended
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.