The First Sister, by Linden Lewis, is an impressively ambitious debut, and one of our dark horses of 2020. Part space opera, part social commentary, part feminist power piece, and part character-driven narrative, this book has a lot of moving pieces in a fairly small page count (350). It feels like a tiny explosion of everything that makes the science fiction genre a joy to read. But, when you have a book with a low page count and so many ideas, there is only so much you can cram onto each page. The result is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. The First Sister is good at a lot of things, but great at almost none of them.
The First Sister tells the story of war across the solar system. Earth and Mars went to town on each other for a long time until all their AIs got up and left to found a more peaceful civilization elsewhere. This left the two planets exposed to the technologically superior outer planets who began to prey on their previous long-time inner planet bullies. Earth and Mars banded together and the solar system found itself in a two-territory conflict with the asteroid belt as a border. But our story isn’t focused on the big picture. Instead, The First Sister tells a very personal story of three characters and how their experiences bring context to the issues humanity is facing.
The biggest protagonist is the titular First Sister. She’s a sort of pseudo nun/sex slave of the Earth/Mars side and she is forced to live her life on one of the capital ships, servicing the troops spiritually and physically. Her voice is taken from her so that she may not complain about what is done to her, but she is allowed some boons. The First Sister is a highly sought-after rank among the slaves and it means that she may only be claimed by the captain of the ship – minimizing her torments. However, we join our First Sister in the midst of a change-up in the leadership of her vessel and her role is in jeopardy – and she will do anything to keep the small privileges she has gained.
The other two POVs consist of Lito and Hiro, a bonded pair of outer planet spies who use neural connectors to link brains. Their link allows them to think and fight in tandem for greater strength and efficiency. When an operation they are conducting goes south, Lito is dishonorably discharged. But, Lito is recalled to service when Hiro goes rogue as the best person to track Hiro down and eliminate them. Lito’s sections involve him tracking Hiro down in the present, while Hiro’s sections take the form of an audio diary that flesh out the duo’s past and why they defected.
The characters of The First Sister are its strong point. All three leads go through an enormous amount of growth over the course of the book and it really helps you get invested in the protagonists. Their stories are interesting and refreshing – plus they each have a lot of personality and depth which makes them feel rewarding to root for. I also have only praise for the supporting cast, which contains a plethora of side characters that do a great job of moving the story along with exciting set pieces and providing a canvas for the protagonists to paint themselves on. Unfortunately, this is where my unfettered praise ends.
The worldbuilding and storytelling in this book is a mixed bag, which is why I transitioned away from them so quickly at the start of the review. The world of The First Sister is awesome, but I constantly found myself struggling with some of Lewis’ new ideas and inventions due to a lack of context. A perfect example of this is I think I correctly described to you which planets are on the two sides of the war, but I am not 100% sure because the sides of the conflict are only talked about once or twice, and even then Lewis uses very vague terms that left me unsure who was who.
Other times, the ordering of information in the book confused me. Lito and Hiro are both masters of these really cool mercury swords that can change shape and style at will. A huge portion of the start of the book shows you how training with these swords is a vital part of how soldiers are trained in the outer rim. But, you are also consistently shown that most combat at the beginning of the book is done with long-range guns that end fights in milliseconds. Thus I found myself wondering “why the heck do they care about swords so much when they have super guns.” Well, near the end of the book it is shown that resources are so thin since the AIs up and left that neither side of the conflict can afford to blow ships out of the sky. So, almost all space battles involve boarding maneuvers to attempt to capture other ships and repel boarders from your own. Thanks to the tight, cramped, and winding ship passages, mercury blades are the most powerful weapon a soldier can use. This turns out to be only one of multiple reasons the reader is shown that the swords are important, but I spent the majority of the book confused about their purpose.
The story itself poses as this massive galactic conflict – but it struggles to make you care beyond the confines of the leads… because the personal stories of the leads are so interesting. The First Sister feels indecisive if it wants to be telling you a macro, or a micro, story – so it tries, and struggles, to do both at the same time. I think the microstories were a lot stronger and the book would have been better served to stick with the smaller tank of the protagonist’s struggles over the fate of humanity.
Additionally, the themes of the book were interesting, but a bit too undefined. The role of the First Sister was fascinating, and her struggles to survive spoke volumes of commentary about the struggles that some women face in the modern world. Yet, the reader is never really given any justification as to why the inner planets have shipbound sex slaves in the first place other than “it would be a horrible thing that bad people would do.” The result is a theme that feels a little divorced from the book because to a degree it feels forced in and foreign to the ecosystem that Lewis developed. For example, we see tons of evidence that homosexuality is open and accepted in the book and gender is fluid. Yet, we are only ever shown women Sisters, even when there are examples of soldiers who desire men. This diminishes the impact of otherwise smart themes, and while I suspect that future books in the series will address some of the worldbuilding issues I had with The First Sister, I needed these answers now to fully enjoy the first book.
Despite its unfocused nature, The First Sister is a captivating read with interesting characters and new takes on thoughtful ideas. I wish Lewis would try to narrow down the scope slightly going forward, or expand the page count to let the multitude of ideas the book contains have room to breathe. The climax of the first book is fantastic and absolutely dug its hooks into my curiosity as to what happens next. Despite a couple of problems, I still recommend The First Sister as a strong debut and one of the better dark horses I have read this year.
Rating: The First Sister – 7.0/10