The covers of Mike Chen’s books have haunted my Goodreads feed and the genre’s “most anticipated” lists for years. The synopses beckon like a faint siren’s call, but I never found the time to pick one up and dive in. Well, this year I decided to break out of the vicious cycle, and by god look at that cover. Light Years From Home is a heartfelt tale about a family broken by both time and distance that vividly captures familial tensions and the work needed to release them.
Jakob Shao went missing, leaving his family behind on an intervention disguised as a camping trip. His father came back holding a strange polished rock, convinced it was a piece of alien technology. Jakob, in his words, had been abducted by aliens. Kass, Jakob’s twin sister, did not buy it, and cleaned up her own slacking ways to carry the weight of the family. Evie, however, became involved in her father’s quest to find the truth. Fifteen years later, Evie gets some information from her skywatching friends suggesting Jakob is back on Earth. She returns home to California in search of her missing brother. Kass, while taking care of their mother with dementia, just can’t believe Evie has chosen now to interrupt her steady, if isolated life after years of no contact. Meanwhile, Jakob needs to find a missing piece of alien technology that will allow him to even the odds against the empire that threatens the galaxy, if only his two sisters would believe him.
While I could say a number of positive things about Chen’s writing, his strength lies in his ability to convey the thoughts and feelings of his characters. Whether they are processing new information or doubling down on existing preconceptions, the Shao family feel like individuals who don’t know how to handle the world around them. Each character feels deeply entrenched in who they are, and any sort of disturbance to their worldview shakes the ground until they stamp it their feet back until the earth stops shaking. While the characters all feel similar in that they lash outwards, it takes different forms. Kass, the family psychologist, hides behind her intimate knowledge of emotions and coping mechanisms to secure her own truth. Evie, after years of estrangement from her entire family, feels she has all the answers because everything she has done is supported by “science” or “data.” And Jakob, well, he’s caught between the heroic person he’s become and the slacker his family still sees him as, unable to reconcile the distance and own up to the trauma he caused them.
All of this is written in an unreliable narration style from each of their perspectives, making the reader guess at the actual truth of the situation. There were moments where I felt for each of them, that sense of “why can’t they just accept that this is the way it is now?” frustration that plagues any sort of family squabble. And then Chen would switch characters and point out the inconsistencies as seen by Evie, Kass or Jakob. Chen performed a wonderful and emotional juggling act, never giving full credence to a specific character unless it felt they were right in that moment. No one really ever had the upper hand, each member of the Shao family had work to do, sins to reconcile amongst each other and within themselves. It made each fissure feel deeper and more unmanageable as the frenetic pace of the story slammed against this small family.
While Jakob’s quest felt immediate and unavoidable, it never fully occupied the center stage. Sure it did inside his own head, but Chen managed to make it feel urgent and in need of being solved, without overshadowing the other characters. This is amplified by the constant doubt that Jakob may not actually be who he says he is, and Chen really knows how to play with ambiguity. Kass, while she is determined to cut him down and put him in the same box he was in fifteen years ago, was really good at poking holes in his story. Unfortunately, this left Evie in some tough spots, having to choose between the two sides, one of which had the backing of the FBI. All that’s to say, this genre mashup focuses more on the family dynamics than its science fiction bonafides, and I, for one, was glad for it.
Light Years from Home is a solid book about how one’s actions, conscious or not, ripple through one’s family. One can be a galactic hero, but still have fucked up the lives of one’s siblings and parents through being neglectful and inconsiderate. One can study the emotional lives of others, while building an emotional fortress your closest have to scale in order to reach you. One can intimately pin point every detail and know the precise data points that led to their conclusions while missing the fact that their family is not a graph. If you want an empathetic and heartrending tale of how a family relearns how to be a family, Chen’s latest is for you.
Rating: Light Years from Home 8.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.