What an absolute Pandora’s Box of despair today’s book is. Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh, is a stand-alone science fiction thriller about a cell of radical Earth terrorists looking to avenge the death of the blue marble by taking out some alien civilians. It is a strange and brilliant reversal of many classic first-contact tropes with a deep dive into how propaganda can warp your perception of reality and how war often has no good outcomes no matter how perfectly you roll the dice. And to top it all off, all of this is explored in a tight standalone novel that will easily crack our top books of 2023. Let’s dive in.
Content Warning: This book deals with extremely heavy subjects and has some upsetting depictions of genocide, suicide, and sexual abuse. Please know that going in.
Kyr, short for Valkyr, is an elite Terran operative who has lived her entire life on the remote space station Gaea. She has trained every day of her life for the moment she can avenge the murder of planet Earth. They are all that is left of humanity after the Majoda alien confederation grouped together in a last-ditch effort in the war and destroyed Earth. She spends each day readying herself to face the Wisdom, the all-powerful, reality-shaping weapon that gave the Majoda their victory over humanity. Kyr has given up all possessions, all interests, and all dreams to train her body into a killing machine to avenge her world. The one allowance she gives herself is a deep love of her one remaining family member, her brother. So when Gaea Command assigns him to certain death and relegates her to the nursery to bear sons until she dies trying (instead of going down killing), she knows she must take humanity’s revenge into her own hands. Thus Kyr journeys out into the larger world to find her brother and begins a painful journey of self-discovery that will rip her apart.
Some Desperate Glory has the sheen and aesthetics of a YA story. A special girl protagonist who is different, a dystopian world that only she can save, and a million big themes that can have their surfaces barely scratched. Despite this, Glory is absolutely not YA. Kyr is a rich and deep character who feels focused and traumatized by her surroundings to the point where she couldn’t develop much personality beyond survival. The worldbuilding feels shallow at first, but that is an effect of the isolated space station, and once Kyr gets out both the protagonist and the reader get to see the world is bigger than you could ever know. The themes are myriad and we don’t spend a ton of time on any, but that feels more because Tesh is very efficient in exploring all the kaleidoscopic horrors that Kyr’s upbringing has spawned.
I would categorize the central themes of the book into two buckets. Social – sexism, racism, and homophobia. And General – the effects of war, history through the lens of the aggressor, coping with tragedy, finding purpose, the greater good, and more. Before I started my own review I took a look through a number of others because I was curious. I found that some people had difficulty with how Tesh handled the social issues specifically. I had no problems with the social issues and found some of them very unique and refreshing. One example is that Kyr is gay and the story features multiple potential timelines. In each of these timelines, Kyr is defined by her sexual orientation at varying degrees depending on the circumstance. Is it a time of peace where relationships are easy? The romance takes a stronger focus and desires are clearer. Is it a time of war where romance is a distant priority? That part of her gets suppressed, among other emotions, to deal with the life-threatening situations in front of Kyr. But, FYI, I am a cishet white man so I am absolutely not the right authority on these themes.
As for the general themes, Tesh did a fabulous job. Probably my favorite element of this book is the reversal of the first contact trope. In this book, humanity is the aggressive technologically dominant species that discover others and starts taking over worlds in the name of capitalism. The aliens band together for one last stand to heroically destroy the evil human’s homeworld–and it works! Now the universe can be saved from the Terran menace. Showing the other side of the equation in this classic trope really drives home the themes around the horrors of war and that there are no good outcomes.
I really like Kyr as a protagonist and I think her development through the story feels natural and makes me feel hopeful about deprogramming some of the people I know in real life who have fallen for propaganda. Her internal struggles/needs, the things that get in the cracks and open her up to new ideas, and her eventual self-reflection and growth are all super satisfying. All of this is helped by Tesh having strong prose and fast pacing that keeps the reader jumping from question to question. The book is easy to read while being deeply traumatizing at points which is a fun combination.
Some Desperate Glory is one of the most unique, thoughtful, and exciting books I have read this year so far and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It is a messy story that gives new insights into how war and capitalism are evil with a robust cast of interesting characters who all go on fabulous journeys of self-reflection. And, all of this is contained in a single standalone novel. Go read this beautiful and traumatizing story now.
Rating: Some Desperate Glory – 9.5/10
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.