Thank you to Simon & Schuster as well as NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book.
When I first saw the cover for Linden A Lewis’s debut novel, The First Sister, I knew I wanted to get my hands on it. The second I stated it, I fell in love with each of the characters immediately and didn’t want to put it down.
The story follows three POVs between The First Sister – a priestess aboard a starship headed to the moon Mars where the Gean people reside, Lito sol Lucius – a soldier who fought with the Icarii during the Battle of Ceres, and Hiro val Akira – Lito’s battle partner who has gone rogue and disappeared. Each of the POVs is written is first person which confused me slightly with the first few chapters, but I quickly got the hang of it and each character has such a distinct way of talking, it is easy to remember who is talking.
The comp titles for this book were Red Rising (by Pierce Brown) and Handmaid’s Tale(by Margaret Attwood), but I honestly felt it was closer to Red Rising meets Dune (by Frank Herbert) with a hint of Star Trek in there. The Sisterhood, the main religion of the Geans that also happens to run their government, strongly made me think of a more dictatorial version of the Bene Gesserit from Dune in the way that the training is strict and aggressive and the rules must be followed to a T or else there are drastic consequences. The addition of these priestesses acting as consorts or concubines in a sense just added to that and made me think of Jessica from Dune. When it came to the levels of society within the Icarii race and the advanced technologies they have, that’s really where theRed Rising aspect fits so well. The rankings of society and the commentary on how poverty works within this alternate future really reflected our current society where the poor “don’t deserve” basic things like fresh food or proper living conditions, or even medicine. The two clashing societies were also fascinating and the natural vs altered debate was a curious one especially given that the genetically altered (read as: perfected) Icarii honestly have a better way of life in a lot of ways compared to the Geans.
But what hit hardest was the characters.
The First Sister was thrust into the Sisterhood because she was housed in a Sisterhood funded orphanage. She was stripped of her voice and her dreams and her freedom to become a part of a religion she didn’t entirely understand. Lito risked it all to rise up from the lower levels and make it into the military where he met Hiro, only to be punished for the military’s failure in battle. Hiro… I have a lot of thoughts about Hiro.
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Hiro is a non-binary character. A person who has faced ridicule and abuse at the hands of his father as well as classmates and superiors. They lost their mother who couldn’t bare it all. They were shown the horrors of the world and couldn’t stand to turn away from them again. After the failure of the Battle of Ceres (set before the events of the book), Hiro was terribly wounded and instead of being allowed to rest, they were drugged and mutilated, shaped into the female warrior who had nearly killed Hiro and Lito, both. Lito was able to make Hiro feel welcomed, feel loved and cared for, and began to love themselves as a result of that, only to be forced into a gendered role by the people who dislike and/or disprove of them.
Reading these moments, as a trans person, hit so hard. It is so hard to explain to cisgendered people what it is like to be perceived as someone you are not, to be seen as something you are not. Hiro being forced into a female body for the sake of espionage and being unable to look at themselves or feel at all like themselves is something I’ve felt personally (well, maybe not the espionage part) and it is the most painful thing in the world. For these reasons, Hiro is a character I immediately grew attached to and I wish I had a friendship, a bond, with some like Lito the same way he has bonded with Hiro.
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Another thing with this book that I really appreciated was the depiction of Japanese. I am white and English is the only language I’m fluent in. However, I can understand several languages including Japanese. This was the first time I’ve read a book that didn’t romanize the Japanese dialogue and instead included hiragana, katakana, and kanji to spell out the words. The same was done for the small instances of Chinese that were in the book. I’ve read a lot of books (and even more anime fanfiction) that have romanized Japanese in them and there was always something that felt off to me about it, so seeing it this way in a sense felt more authentic and respectful to the language.
I would honestly be really curious to hear what other people think in regard to this formatting of language in books. I know that romanizing it makes in “more accessible” to those who don’t speak the language but I think it’s little things like this that can prompt avid readers to learn a few words here and there in other languages. It’s not hard to look up a character chart or to put a sentence through google translate, but even literary fiction like Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman has large sections in Italian or Latin that aren’t translated. Even Lord of the Rings or Star Wars have lengthy moments of made up languages that aren’t translated but we all get the gist. If we’ve reached a point in the world where you take university level classes in Klingon, we can all take a moment to learn a few phrases in Japanese using the proper character alphabet.
But back to the book.
As is usual with science fiction, there were lulls in this, and I did find myself wondering where the story could go in order to carry out a full trilogy, but the last handful of chapters had me majorly freaking out. With several plot twists happening all at once, It really is a thrill ride and Ineed more of it. The chess pieces are set, and a few have fallen, but the real game is only just beginning.