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.