I received a copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own
First I am legitimately shocked that I hadn’t heard of this book before, I’ve been a fan of SL Huang and Yoon Ha Lee for at least a couple of years, this book released in 2019 and it took me this long to read it. Ridiculous! Fortunately, I have now read this book and it was fantastic.
Orphan, refugee, and soldier-for-hire Asala Sikou doesn’t think too much about the end of civilization. Her system’s star is dying, and the only person she can afford to look out for is herself.
When a ship called The Vela vanishes during what was supposed to be a flashy rescue mission, a reluctant Asala is hired to team up with Niko, the child of a wealthy inner planet’s president, to find it and the outer system refugees on board.
But this is no ordinary rescue mission; The Vela holds a secret that places the fate of the universe in the balance, and forces Asala to decide—in a dying world where good and evil are far from black and white, who deserves to survive?
I was intrigued by the idea of a group of authors collaborating to write a novel in sections, and was worried that the ‘voice’ of the narrator would be jarringly inconsistent. This was not the case, and the very slight increase in poetic symbolism in the section that Yoon Ha Lee wrote, or the action movie pacing of SL Huang’s sections only served to enhance my enjoyment of the book. If I were familiar with the work of Becky Chambers or Rivers Solomon before reading The Vela there is a chance I would have noticed slight stylistic differences in their sections, but as I was not, I did not.
I loved the way The Vela tackled big issues head-on, and the breakneck pacing of the novel leant itself well to the increasingly urgent need to take action on climate issues, and issues of inequality. From the opening section of the novel, The Vela doesn’t hesitate to tackle issues of racism, xenophobia, inequality, corruption and climate change. Asala was an amazing character, and I loved the way her strength and pragmatism was tempered by compassion. Niko was a perfect foil for Asala, and their expertise in technology contrasted well with their relative inexperience in the world. Their views were extreme at times, though believable in the context of their background. Niko’s tech abilities and Asala’s combat skills did seem slightly unrealistic at times, but definitely not outside the realm of main-character effectiveness.
General Cynwrig was an extremely well-written antagonist, and her character arc was extremely well-done. I loved the way she was humanised without being excused responsibility for her actions, and her interactions with Asala and Niko in particular helped to further the character development of each of them. While Ekrem wasn’t a main character by any means, I enjoyed the way his role and personality were shown to have shaped Niko, and the contrast of the way he viewed Asala vs the way she (out of necessity) viewed him.
While any multi-planet fiction of necessity tends to boil down the culture of a country into one monolithic group, I was glad for the moments of acknowledgement of regional differences, particularly on Hypatia. The technological competition of the varying planets was also a welcome touch of realism, as was the relative dominance of different cultures in varying arenas (the Khayyami at spaceships, the Gandesians at war etc). Without spoiling anything, the motivation for the major players in this novel was also believable, and played well with the themes of the book.
It’s a testament to how incredible The Vela was that it’s taken me this long to mention the incredible representation included in the novel. Gender and sexual minorities are present in and out of the main cast, and Asala lives with a disability that at times improves her life, rather than being presented as an impediment. While Asala is never jumping for joy at her loss of hearing, she strategically uses or doesn’t use her hearing aides to help her concentration, or just to avoid unwanted conversations. What’s not to love? I also really appreciate when a character is introduced, and their sexual or gender identity only becomes clear later on. This sort of casual representation can help to make gender and sexual minorities seem truly a part of the world, rather than an immediately noticeable character trait, used to differentiate characters.
I also appreciated the way Asala’s backstory is teased out over the course of the novel, and I thought her backstory interwoven with the stories of those on The Vela was very effectively done. While the gritty realities of refugees were presented in full detail in this novel, I really appreciated the lack of sexism, sexual assault, homophobia and transphobia. I really appreciate books that are realistic in presenting problems, without feeling the need to overload a book or a given set of characters with violence and bigotry of every flavour in the name of realism.
The ending of this book was not 100% as satisfying as I would have liked, but I appreciated it nonetheless. I’d love to see this storyline continued, but even if it isn’t I think the book did resolve everything it set out to (and more, in several cases). I was happy with the character arc of Asala, Niko and General Cynwrig, and the in-universe situation as a whole, though there’s certainly fodder for a great sequel or two.
Overall, I’d recommend this book to fans of SL Huang or Yoon Ha Lee’s other works, as well as to people who enjoy a hefty dose of ethics with their space explosions. I was reminded at times of the grim realities of war and xenophobia presented in RF Kuang’s The Poppy War, though that book does contain sexual violence, and is fantasy rather than science fiction. The LGBTAIQ+ representation, and the serious social concerns interspersed with a classic action-heavy setting were also reminiscent of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series.
The Vela was an incredible read that I enjoyed thoroughly, if you like sci fi, I think you will too.