The First Sister (2020)

by Linden A. Lewis
I thought it was Okay
Release Date: August 4, 2020
Publisher: Skybound Books
Content Warning(s): Explicit sexual content, misgendering, sexual violence, human experimentation, classism, poverty, state violence, state corruption, imperialism, fantasy racism

The First Sister is the first part in a queer sociopolitical science fiction trilogy about First Sister, a priestess and comfort woman ordered to spy on her ship’s captain, and Lito sol Lucius, a formerly impoverished soldier given a mission to track down and kill his former partner. Pitched to have the thrills of Red Rising whilst not only acknowledging spectrums in gender and sexuality, but including their particularities in its narrative with the conscientiousness of A Handmaid’s Tale, this book was set to realize my queer dream.

The danger of explicitly naming comparable works is that this creates direct comparisons. In this case, both of the works that The First Sister compares to are multi-part cross-media franchises that have had a lot of time to find their communities. And in fact, I was finally going to pick up Dark Age, the latest book in the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown, when my hold on this came in from the library. But to pit this slim book against series comprised of massive installments would be unfair, so my question entering into this book was, is it as action-packed as the first book in Red Rising and is it as socially savvy as A Handmaid’s Tale?

Short answer, nah.

Long answer, it’s doing some interesting stuff, but I have greater confidence in the writer than I do the series.

The narrative is divided into three POVs: First Sister’s, Lito sol Lucius’, and Hiro val Akira’s, which is its first problem. 351 pages for three POVs with similar voices, each with thorny issues to tackle, just isn’t enough to build the desired resonance (and as someone who loves short stories and cries real tears when gifted readable bricks, I can’t believe I’m saying this should be longer). The main POVs belong to First Sister and Lito while Hiro’s chapters are at best accompanying filler for Lito’s. As Hiro is non-binary and Japanese, I was glad to have their perspective, but few of Hiro’s chapters felt substantial enough to justify their place. Constant callbacks to Hiro’s chapters were used to emphasize plot revelations, but none of these revelations required underscoring because the readers should’ve been trusted to understand how new information connected with past information, so these lines bogged the prose down in repetitive noise. If Hiro’s sections were fewer, more concise, or at least if they eliminated overlap in given information, their sections wouldn’t have been so dull.

Any one of these characters could’ve had an entire book dedicated to their story. To have them interwoven and given so little space because of it felt like a major hindrance in building thematic arguments and successfully conveying characters as nuanced individuals. Likewise, because The First Sister tackles the issues of consent, poverty and class, and racism within those divvied narratives, none of its issues are satisfactorily explored; everything is touched upon, making each an argument of highlights rather than delving deep into these complicated issues.

For instance, the way that it tackles racism in this post-Earth society relies upon a trope I’m not fond of: humans are racist towards a fantasy race while human society has little racism to speak of. (There’re maybe two instances in which racism within human society is referenced, but they’re brief.) I can respect the desire to address racism without also triggering and/or alienating readers, so it’s a legit technique, it’s just one I’m skeptical of. Here, humans pile on Asters, an offshoot of humans evolved for spacefaring. Their description reminds me of the Belters in The Expanse: they’re tall and thin with translucent skin, they’ve developed a separate language, and they have difficulty surviving outside of their preferred habitat.

Lito, a biracial Spanish-speaking soldier, is set up early to be the one intended to learn ‘why racism bad’ and to repent for his neutrality on the subject, but his journey from his by-my-bootstraps mentality exemplified in lines such as, “I don’t feel bad for the Asters. I grew up in the lower levels of Cytherea, side by side with several of them, but I pulled myself out,” to his eagerness to fight for justice on behalf of the Asters doesn’t have enough conflict or turmoil to convince me of his journey. If the entirety of the novel had been dedicated to his slowly realizing how he has contributed to systemic injustice despite also suffering under that system, his heel-turn for justice would’ve better resonated, but because Lito’s narrative is only a third of the book, maybe 160-ish pages, his development is truncated, kept to the big hits which reduces his flip from racist to rebel to a single instance in which he’s forced to live another’s trauma. As it is, he feels more like an Atticus Finch type: his morals of fairness and justice drive him to “do the right thing,” but he’s not specifically engaging with the issue of racism.

That dynamic of having good points but not dedicating the space to intricately explore a topic or to have the characters develop nuanced opinions around these topics repeats with every theme in the book. I can’t disavow that at this time, ongoing Black Lives Matter protests contribute to my desire for conversations that go a step beyond these basic messages. I also must acknowledge that the messages in this book may be exactly what someone else needs right now; this work could potentially encourage readers to think beyond themselves in important ways. Both of these things are true, but for me: they weren’t full enough to intrigue me.

Additionally, this has some classic debut problems, like clunky dialogue, lackluster prose, thin characters, and a mostly predictable plot. The pacing which slyly covered up many of Red Rising’s flaws isn’t here. There’s little to pull me past chapter breaks which makes every chapter feel like a full stop whereas Red Rising used cheap tricks (that worked) to create a seamless transition. Those tricks aren’t necessary, but the story held on too dearly to its twists; many of its plot turns were relatively small and/or were easy to guess. It isn’t until we pass the 80% mark that we start getting the sort of clever turns I was hoping for throughout. These surprises come one after the other, practically dumped in a single scene. Waiting for them didn’t make me appreciate them more, but rather made me imagine a story that better activated dull stretches by having these kinds of reveals throughout.

So, did it fulfill the promises given in its synopsis? For me, no. It wasn’t as exciting as Red Rising and its social commentary was too shallow, but I cannot emphasize enough how much I loved the diversity within this book. Seeing a set of actors with such different experiences, not only from each other, but from mainstream science fiction heroes altogether, kept this narrative feeling unique.

The problems that I had were technical: the prose and the story-telling techniques can be improved over time, and I hope to see that growth in Lewis’ work with every new addition to their ouvre, but every creator isn’t as thoughtful as Lewis and doesn’t take the time to include or center marginalized experiences. For that, and because, as a whole, the work is fun and entertaining, The First Sister should absolutely be given your time and attention.