Linden A. Lewis
published: 4th August 2020
spoilers? yes, big ones, but signposted
Combining the social commentary of The Handmaid’s Tale with the white-knuckled thrills of Red Rising, this epic space opera follows a comfort woman as she claims her agency, a soldier questioning his allegiances, and a non-binary hero out to save the solar system.
First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.
Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and now a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.
A stunning and sweeping debut novel that explores the power of technology, colonization, race, and gender, The First Sister is perfect for fans of James S.A. Corey, Chuck Wendig, and Margaret Atwood.
Galley provided by publisher
CWs: threats of sexual violence, child prostitution, gender dysphoria, non-consensual surgical procedures, human experimentation
In all honesty, I’ve been putting off writing this review because I don’t want to think about this book, and in particular, a plot twist in this book, any longer since finishing it. It’s one of those books that is going along fine, and then something happens, and it leaves the worst taste in your mouth.
But back to that later.
Firstly, this book is a space opera featuring two rival empires. We are shown POVs from both sides, First Sister and Lito. With First Sister, we follow the story of the Sisterhood, who provide comfort women to the empire’s ships and rule the empire from the shadows. With Lito, we follow a soldier instructed to find and kill his partner, who has betrayed their home.
Let me start with the good things before I get to the… less good, let’s say. I really enjoyed the writing in this one. It was easily readable and sucked you into the story. Granted, from the start, I had a bit more interest in Lito and Hiro’s storyline than First Sister’s but I still enjoyed reading hers. It was the kind of writing that makes you feel as if you’re living in the world yourself, until you pull back from the page and find you’re not, after all.
Add into that some very interesting worldbuilding, I thought I was absolutely going to love this book.
And then the twist.
There are big spoilers here, so, if you want to avoid those, just skip the rest of the review. I don’t have much more to say apart from a discussion of the twist.
Let me set the scene. Hiro was sent undercover to kill the Mother, leader of the Sisterhood. On hearing that they have defected, their superiors send Lito after them, to kill his (duelling) partner and complete the mission. The twist is that, to be sent undercover, Hiro has been genetically modified (and had some limbs amputated) to become Saito Ren, who they and Lito had faced and killed in the loss of the planet they were living on.
The major problem I had with this twist is that it seemed to me a fairly pointless way of bringing the stories together (which I think could have been done way later, besides. Like almost split what’s in this book into two separate books, because there was enough content for that. As it was, things felt a little brushed over). You could definitely have had Saito Ren still be alive and not be a genetically modified Hiro. Because the real kicker is the whole thing seemed merely to show how far Hiro’s own father and their side would go with regards to experimentation (which has already been shown by their experimentation on an alien race, surely?). Not to mention that the body they have now been forced into now elicits a ton of gender dysphoria for Hiro. They comment that they can’t even look at themselves naked anymore because they’re in now in a female-presenting body.
I’ve tried to work out what this plan actually achieved, on Hiro’s father’s part particularly, and have come to the conclusion that it was not much. In all honesty, it seems to have been done from spite, because Hiro’s father hates them, and for no other reason. Not to mention, the whole plot twist of “Saito Ren is actually Hiro!” felt a lot like it was done for shock value in the Saito Ren/First Sister romance.
So yes, I can see how this is meant to parallel the whole “your body is not your own” message of the Sisterhood, but I don’t think it paralleled it very effectively. It was somewhat a blunt message, and could equally have been done with the neural transplants that all duellers had. You have that right there, so why are you introducing this? The other argument is that it’s about the invasion of rights, but again, I would point to the alien race and ask, is this not shown well enough already?
I don’t know if I have managed to effectively communicate just how much I hated this plot twist. It just left me feeling a little bit discomforted after finishing the book. I’m not trying to say that it was overtly “problematic” or whatever (for one, I am not the right person to be suggesting so, and obviously not everyone has had the same reaction), but I didn’t enjoy it. And as such it ruined my enjoyment of the book (which I had liked up until then).
So, on the whole, what I was left with was a book that had a lot of potential, and just failed to deliver.