World Fantasy Award winner Emily Tesh’s debut novel Some Desperate Glory is a space opera but one in which more than a little bit of science that feels like magic. While it is not being pitched as a YA novel, Some Desperate Glory ticks many of the YA boxes – centred around a teenage character who has to grow up, learn the truth about her history and rebel against the adult establishment with a hint of “chosen one” tropes for good measure.
When Some Desperate Glory opens, militant mankind has been put in its place by a pan-galactic hegemony run by a massive artificial intelligence called the Wisdom. Earth, and its 14 billion inhabitants has been destroyed and the remnants of mankind eke out an existence on a hollowed-out asteroid known as Gaea. Valkyre, aka Kyr, is a genetically enhanced warrior who leads a small group of other teenage girls through a rigorous and brutal training regime. She expects, when final assignments are handed out at the completion of their training, to be put into combat but instead is consigned to the Nursery, a command-imposed breeding program while her brother is sent out into the wider universe on a suicide mission. Not content with this decision, Kyr decides to go after Magnus with his computer genius friend Ari and an alien captive. In doing so, she starts to open her eyes to the conditioning that she has been subject to all of her life.
To say any more about the plot of Some Desperate Glory would give away some of its reveals. While many of these are obvious – just think of any autocratic, despotic regime – the main twists in the plot are more audacious. And while the actual mechanics of them do not bear thinking about (this is where the magic comes in), they do allow for Tesh to explore some of her themes a bit more deeply. Many of those themes revolve around sexual identity, racism, autocracy and the constant human struggle to achieve peace. All wrapped up in what can only be described a massive trolley problem in which the population of Earth is weighed against the population of the rest of the galaxy.
But this is where the YA nature of Some Desperate Glory comes to the fore. The plot itself eventually boils down to kids, advised by a wise elder using almost magical macguffins, to rise up against the adults and put things to rights. The politics around sexuality are fairly surface. Despite being raised to be homophobic Kyr has a kind of sexual awakening (she even exclaims ‘I’m queer’ at one point late in the book) but it is mainly surface. And behind the whole of the plot and its various twists is a literal deus ex machina.
Kyr herself is initially as unlikeable a protagonist as readers are likely to find. And the story really is about her coming to understand herself, the toxic relationships she has created and the influence of the adults in her life on her world view and in doing so become a better person.
Some Desperate Glory is a pacey, well written but not altogether satisfying standalone space opera which is likely to find a more willing readership in the YA market. As a debut author Tesh shows great promise, but those looking for a little more meat and nuance in their space opera should stick with the likes of Arkady Martine, Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee.