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Review: Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan

by ◊ 3 years ago 22 Comments Switch View

Preliminary Scan:

If a violent battle destroyed the only world you’ve ever known, would you be brave enough to save who was left? Would love be strong enough to survive the fight? Either way, there’s no turning back.

The Empyrean is the only home 15-year-old Waverly has ever known. Part of the first generation to be successfully conceived in deep space, she and her boyfriend Kieran will be pioneers of New Earth. Waverly knows she must marry young in order to have children who can carry on the mission, and Kieran, the handsome captain-to-be, has everything Waverly could want in a husband. Everyone is sure he’s the best choice. Still, there’s a part of Waverly that wants more from life than marriage, and she is secretly intrigued by the shy, darkly brilliant Seth.

Suddenly, Waverly’s dreams are interrupted by the inconceivable – a violent betrayal by the Empyrean’s sister ship, the New Horizon. The New Horizon’s leaders are desperate to populate the new planet first, and will do anything to get what they need: young girls. In one pivotal moment, Waverly and Kieran are separated, and find themselves at the helm of dangerous missions, where every move has potentially devastating consequences, and decisions of the heart may lead to disaster.

- synopsis and cover courtesy of goodreads.com

Atmospheric Analysis: I wasn’t too fond of Glow‘s stark, subtle cover at first, thanks in particular to the obvious stock image of the girl in the porthole that forms the letter “O.” But in reading, it grew on me–it captures the book’s darkness and claustrophobia well.

The American cover is a huge improvement over the UK version, which features a cartoonishly photoshopped face. I mean, how big is that girl’s forehead? What happened to her chin?! Cool idea (and I dig the font embellishment), awful execution.

Planetary Class: Though set in space, the science fiction of Glow is a touch harder than most space opera; it’s dark thematics and cynicism about humanity also distinguish it from old school, fundamentally optimistic space opera works like Star Wars. But some sci-fi fans have made room for both darkness and scientific rigor in their space opera by distinguishing a “new” space opera–one that encompasses gloomy, techy works like the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Glow would be right at home under this label.

Mohs Rating: Glow rates a 4 on the Mohs scale. While the type of deep space travel and artificial gravity isn’t possible, the use of a constant acceleration drive makes the space travel at least plausible. I’m not so sure about the giant robot suits, though.

Planetary Viability: Ryan tries really, really, really hard to fool you into thinking that the worlds aboard the spaceships Empyrean and New Horizon are founded on plausible science. She’s clearly read some wikipedia articles about space travel and generally seems to be aiming for a hard sci-fi feel.

Unfortunately, it all falls apart during an absolutely painful “As you know, Bob”-style infodump. Rather than seeding technical details throughout the novel, our heroine Waverly pauses to reflect on physics classes with another character. And during this conversation, Ryan’s major worldbuilding error becomes clear. She thinks that space is an ocean, and that the ships, if not accelerating, will come to a stop on their own. In fact, though she’s provided her ships with reverse thrusters to provide some form of braking, she seems to imply that they’re not in use:

. . . that was the original mission plan. Halfway to New Earth, both ships were supposed to cease their acceleration, turn around, and point the thrusters toward New Earth to slow themselves down. With the ships pointing in the opposite direction, slowing down would create as much a feeling of gravity as accelerating. So why didn’t the New Horizon just do that? Waverly was stumped. (p. 91, ARC edition)

I suspect Ryan wrote herself into a corner there due to several plot twists, but wasn’t clear that she understands that when a spaceship stops accelerating, it will just continue to coast at the same speed forever–until something stops it.

Xenolinguistical Assessment: Glow is told through a delicate third-person POV. The language is crisp and lovely without any unnecessary embellishment.

Expanded Report: Glow is the story of Waverly and Kieran, a pair of sixteen-year-olds being prepped for marriage aboard their claustrophobic spaceship home. Young Waverly isn’t absolutely certain that she wants to marry her boyfriend, but since she’s expected to have at least four children while very young, she doesn’t precisely have a choice.

But then their ship is attacked by another, the New Horizon. Unlike the Empyrean, the New Horizon was populated with religious folks, who unfortunately lost their own capacity for reproduction a generation ago. So they do what any inhabitants on a spaceship full of lies would: they attack the Empyrean, and steal all of their young women.

This is a dark, dark book. I feel like I can’t state that enough: it’s dark. If you’re wondering precisely how dark it is, the narrative includes religious zealots, drugged food, invasive surgery without consent, murder, riots, solitary confinement, and an atmosphere of constant sexual violence. And the sexual violence is not only perpetrated by the baddies: even the good guys seem to take part, leering at Waverly from the outskirts of her memories.

Waverly and the other young girls are taken onto the New Horizon to be integrated into existing family units. The population there is religious, reminiscent of early American pioneers (nearly all of the characters on both ships have protestant/British names, except for a small handful with awkwardly “exotic” names like Mbewe). They’re not quite strawman Christians, though I could imagine Anne Mather, the ship’s pastor and captain, rubbing some religious readers the wrong way. But Ryan doesn’t seem to believe that these individuals are particularly terrible compared to those Empyrean. As I said, they’re pretty nasty folks, too–who starve their children and then force them into marriage at a very young age.

The book rotates perspective between Waverly and Kieran’s stories. Waverly’s is probably the stronger. She grows from a naive girl into a practical-minded leader. Some of this growth is due to the trespasses on her body that she experiences during her time on the Empyrean. I don’t want to spoil anything, but what happens to her is really horrific.

Meanwhile, Kieran is busy replaying Lord of the Flies with the other boys aboard the Empyrean. He is jailed by Seth, a romantic rival for Waverly’s affection who is largely depicted as a cartoonish monster; Kieran has to overcome his physical isolation to become the ship’s leader, a position promised to him since birth. The boys generally act like savages, though some of Seth’s criticisms of Kieran are oddly correct. He has been privileged, in a way that no other boy aboard the ship has been. Later, when he begins to form an on-board religion that I suspect was meant as an answer to Anne Mather’s more sinister Christianity, he slips into rhetoric that seems quite ominous, too, citing the other boys’ lack of faith as the reason for their parents’ deaths:

I’m wondering how different things might be if we had been paying attention to the spiritual side of our mission. What if we’d been more mindful? Would God have been kinder to us in the hour of our need? Would our mothers and fathers and sisters be with us here today if we’d paid Him more attention? (p. 265)

The only characters here who are remotely likable are the girls–Waverly and her comrades-in-captivity. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a nuanced portrait or a complex person. It’s that Ryan’s overwhelming thesis seems to be one about the inherent evil of humanity–a vision that I don’t particularly agree with. This dark view of man informs everything about Glow, making the book bleak and heavy, a downright uncomfortable read. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a striking book, and one I’ll think of often. I really appreciated the skill with which it was written, and because I’m curious how Waverly and Kieran will overcome what seem to me to be their now-insurmountable differences in belief, I’ll likely read the sequels. But I still didn’t enjoy reading Glow. In fact, the novel filled me with dread.

Glow will appeal to readers of who love dark sci-fi with a techy feel. Fans of Ender’s Game and Battlestar Galactica should take a look. An excerpt is available to read online from tor.com, and the novel is available to purchase from Amazon or your local indie bookstore.

About the Author

Phoebe

Phoebe North is a twenty-something writer of YA speculative fiction. She lives in New York State with her husband and cat (who may be the most intelligent being in her household). Visit her website at phoebenorth.com. View all posts by Phoebe »

Discussion - 22 Comments:

  1. Ronan Wills

    I approve of the copious use of TVTropes links in this review.

    I have to admit, I had initially written this book off based entirely on the cover, which seems to be trying to fit in with the usual stock of what I call Twi-Fi. But it sounds like the story itself is going for a more legitimate sci-fi approach.

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    • Phoebe

      :D One of the reasons I dig talking to Sean about books is because we’re always all, “what a woobie.” Tropers rock!

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  2. This is only tangentially related, but have you seen the Swiss film “Cargo” (from 2009 – there are other films by this name, though not Swiss)? Something in your review made me think of it, but I’m too cold-addled to quite put my finger on what. I enjoyed the movie, though. It’s not blazingly original, but it was affecting and… ok, it was the word “dark” that made me think of it. Not dark the same way this is, exactly, but literally dark, because when most of the crew is in stasis, you don’t need lights on all over the ship.

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  3. What’s the biological imperative for her to have four children very young? Does space make you infertile by your mid-twenties?

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    • Phoebe

      Nope, they just say they want girls to begin having 4+ children by their late teens–I suppose to be done with all of it before a woman reaches her mid-thirties.

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      • I guess I just don’t get it. Did they build a ship which was excessively large? Is the ship getting bigger as it travels? Why on Earth (or off Earth, rather) would you want to fast-pace double the population of your ship?

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      • It bothered me a bit initially, too (having worked on a genship novel and grappled with this very question myself), but eventually it’s revealed that their journey isn’t that long–about 80 years, if I recall correctly. Apparently they’re more concerned with repopulating a planet, not maintaining a steady population on board.

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  4. I’m only midway through this book, but I would say “uncomfortable” definitely describes how I feel when I’m reading it.

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    • Phoebe

      Looking forward to hearing your thoughts! This seems like a divisive title.

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  5. Ronan Wills

    Andrea K Host:
    I guess I just don’t get it. Did they build a ship which was excessively large? Is the ship getting bigger as it travels? Why on Earth (or off Earth, rather) would you want to fast-pace double the population of your ship?

    The crew seem to have very backward, possibly religiously motivated views about women. Maybe they ascribe to the “quiverfull” movement, which basically says that having lots of children and eschewing birth control is a virtue.

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    • Which is fine and all until you run out of resources because you’ve overpopulated your ship. One would presume that people who managed to get a ship into space at all would understand that ten thousand people won’t fit on a ship designed for five thousand?

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  6. I’m not sure I understand the acceleration problem you’ve pointed out in the book. According to the excerpt, at least, it seems that she’s following the pretty standard idea of having to accelerate half the distance, and then decelerate (well, accelerate oppositely) for the latter half of the trip.

    Otherwise, I enjoyed the review, though I don’t imagine I’d enjoy the book much. Which is strange, as I’m not opposed to darkness in my own writing. I suppose that, like you, the problem lies with the basic premise of the inherent “evil of people” vs. “the good”.

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    • Phoebe

      Because of a lack of friction in space, you don’t just coast to a stop as you would in the water or on a road–you need to specifically apply force in the opposite direction. But she explicitly states that they haven’t used reverse thrusters to stop; it implies that they’re just sort of “slowing down” as you would in the water.

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      • I have to say that such a degree of illogic (without it being explained as an ALT-universe with ALT-rules) would probably cause me to stop reading.

        Well, maybe. Assuming the writing wasn’t so glorious and hypnotic that I was pulled on despite my annoyance.

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      • Chris Long

        No, Andrew is right. In fact the quote that you showed in your post specifically gives us the answer. They were going to turn the ship around and continue using the thrusters, but now in the other direction.

        There’s nothing in that quote that suggests to me that the writer thought they would just “drift” to a stop. I think you misread it.

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      • Phoebe

        Ryan says explicitly that the ship is not turning around and using the thrusters: “Halfway to New Earth, both ships were supposed to cease their acceleration, turn around, and point the thrusters toward New Earth to slow themselves down [ . . .] So why didn’t the New Horizon just do that?” It’s the latter part that’s significant. Waverly is musing about this specifically because the New Horizon isn’t operating according to the planned procedures. And yet it’s still stopped. If space is a frictionless vacuum, then it should be drifting unless it follows the SOP.

        I should note that I’m not the only one who read it that way. The Book Smugglers did too: “Ms. Ryan treats the vacuum of space as a friction-based medium.”

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