Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.
When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.
“All that was left were the taunts, and the crack of Scar’s knee, and the past swooping in, an unkindness of ghosts. Her old life had possessed her, strengthening her, but like everything else, used her up and then was done.”
Well I thought this book was pretty great!
The setting is one thing that didn’t work all that well for me, as I never could grasp the details of the spaceship Matilda – its size and layout, the population aboard, how it sustained…well, everything. It runs on autopilot and (almost) no one is paying attention to its trajectory. We also never know how exactly it came to be that a society capable of launching a generation ship into space and sustaining its population for centuries had also managed to backtrack to the point of organizing society in a way just like that of the antebellum South.
But I was able to look past that and very much enjoyed the story set within those parameters. Aster, a black intersex autistic alchematician, is such a great character. Taking everything at face value, her authenticity is a delight. Her relationship with the Surgeon/the Hands of the Heavens/the queer ascetic bastard child of the former Sovereign and one of the black lowdeckers, is nothing short of wonderful. The plot of this story revolves around Aster following the clues left behind by the mother who died shortly after birthing her, the mechanic who may have found a way to leave Matilda behind and make it to a better world.
“A scientist, Aster had learned something Giselle had not: decoding the past was like decoding the physical world. The best that could be hoped for was a working model. A reasonable approximation. That was to say, no matter what Aster learned of Lune, there was no piecing together the full mystery of her life. There was no hearing her laugh or feeling her embrace. A ghost was not a person.”
This book was troubling to read at times, as it deals with abuses of nearly every kind. I actually choked up when Aster broke down, saying, ‘”Nobody is allowed to touch me. Nobody’s allowed to call me names. I’m alive,” she sobbed out. “I’m alive.”‘ This in reference to her recent line of thinking about every living thing being owed the same basic respect.
“People like this guard tried so hard to make Aster feel lesser, but some days, like today, it didn’t work, because she saw clearly how superior she was.”
If you can suspend disbelief about the details of the setting, and you can stomach the non-gratuitous but plentiful scenes of violence and implied sexual assault, I recommend taking this journey with Aster. You might be surprised at where you wind up.