Cover Image: The First Sister

The First Sister

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This was a dense, fascinating ride, with meaty worldbuilding, a diverse cast of interesting characters, and a twisty, satisfying ending. For fans of Star Wars, Dune, and more recently, The Expanse, you've got sword wielding ninja soldiers battling mech-suits, mysterious spy-priestesses, and fancy gene-tech. It's got a bit of it all. Tons of fun, and just the kind of escape we all need sometimes.
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This is the first in a trilogy ("The First Sister"). The thing is that there was nothing on Net Galley to indicate this was part of a trilogy. I would probably have not requested it had I known, because I've had little success with YA trilogies. But you work with what you have, so here goes! It was described as "Combining the social commentary of The Handmaid's Tale with the white-knuckled thrills of Red Rising." I did not like The Handmaid's Tale, and I'm not familiar with Red Rising at all, but the book description interested me, so I went ahead and selected it for review.

Unfortunately, and this is doubtlessly because it's a trilogy, the book took forever to get going and moved at a lethargic pace, while paradoxically doing next to nothing in terms of actually starting in on a story. Combine this with the multiple PoVs, all in first person - a voice I despise - and a tedious audio diary transcription from one of the characters who was unimaginatively named 'Hiro', and it seemed that the characters in this book were conspiring to irritate and bore me.

First person is so two persons ago, and very quickly I lost all interest in Hiro's non-story anyway. I began routinely skipping their sections. Even so, I made it only to 25% of the way through before I was forced to DNF this novel as a cause infâme, which is the opposite of a cause célèbre. Life is too short to spend it on stories that don't inspire, excite and engage. Your mileage may differ. I hope it does. It would be a sad world if we all liked the same things.

My first real problem was that I didn't buy into the scenario where there would be, in the future, a religious order of sacred prostitutes, nor was any help given to the reader as to how this had even come about. Instead we were simply presented with the fait accompli of a going concern. and expected to run with it. For me it was too thin, especially since the author was surprisingly coy about what exactly it was that these women did. Apparently there were three only on this entire troop ship, one of whom was reserved solely for the captain. The other two evidently had their work cut out for them, whatever it was.

The whole point of volume one of a series is that it's a prologue. I don't do prologues and I don't like volume 1's for that very reason, so it was ironic to me that this one told us so little about the world we're in. The comparison to Red Rising may or may not be apt. I can't speak to that, but personally I'd feel insulted were my work to be compared with someone else's like mine is a poor clone rather than something original, but as long as we're making comparisons, for me, a better one is to Star Trek, and it's a negative one, I'm sorry to say, because Star Trek has this same problem. In this story, just like in Star Trek, we have people doing everything, with not a robot in sight.

What happened to all the robots? We have them today in volume and they're getting better and better. So what went wrong? Was there a robot plague and they all died out such that there are none for the military and so human cannon fodder is required as usual? And on that score, why are there no sex dolls in the future such that women are required to serve as something for the men to masturbate in?

Again, we have sex dolls today and they're becoming more and more lifelike, but while they're a long way from being remotely human in any way, this story takes place well into the future. And still: no sex toys? It doesn't work without some sort of explanation as to why there are none and so there have to be actual humans in servitude to men - and on a ship captained by a woman?! Naturally there has to be human interest, but the trick of writing a good human interest story is to set it in a realistic future and still make it work. This future felt artificial and sterile. Humans are still doing all the fighting in person? There are no robots? No drones? No AIs? It didn't work for me.

Why would these women voluntarily have their vocal chords disabled or removed or whatever it was they had done with no explanation as to why, and give up their voice? Isn't a voice part of a good sex life? Obviously these women were not allowed to just say no, so their voice would have been useless for that, but why were they denied any expression of pleasure, whether real or just faking it? Women are fighting right now to have a voice, and yet in the future it's gone? Why? How did it happen? In the portion I read, that question got a Trumpian response: no intelligent answer, just redirection and deflection. Why would adherents of a female-oriented religion, with a goddess at its head, put themselves in physical service to men? We get no answers - not in the 25% I read. I needed more than this novel was apparently willing to provide, and that's one of the reasons why I began writing myself, so maybe it's not a bad thing!

As the book description tells us, "First Sister has no name and no voice." Even without a physical voice, she could still have set herself apart and showed some backbone, but she did not. Perhaps she grows a spine later, but will she also grow integrity? She's lacking that, too. She was so pathetic to me in that first quarter of this novel that I couldn't bear to read any more about her. I've read too many real-life stories about people in her position who have shown their mettle. I'm not interested in a fictional one who doesn't appear to have any, let alone know where to find some and I'm not about to read three novels where one would do in the faint hope she'll get some in the end.

When I open a new novel I'm always hoping to be shown something new; something different; something I've longed for without, perhaps, even realizing it. I've read many novels like that. Sadly though, I've read many more that were not like that at all: ones that took the road most traveled instead of least. It's nice to be surprised, but that didn't happen in this case. While I wish the author all the best in their future endeavors, I can't in good faith commend this particular one as a worthy read based on what I experienced from it.
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Have you ever read a book that gives you that feeling? That you're reading something that pulls you to continue reading? That gives you familiar tropes but an incredibly new story? 

This is that book. This is the series you need to read. 'The First Sister' by Linden A Lewis will either be a TV show or a movie one day and if it isn't well, I suck at predicting the future.

This book is a story about broken people, in a world ravaged by war, who try to figure out what side they are on. This book focuses on the narratives of three people: The Second Sister now demoted to the First, Hiro - the partner of Lito who tells their story through a recording, and Lito - a warrior who is trapped into a mission that he would rather resist than complete.

I loved the first person narrative and the uniqueness of each of these characters. I have seen/read characters like them before in other books, but never did I get to really play around in their minds privately like the author allowed us to do so here.

There are so many interesting themes in this book: Love, fear, compassion, hatred, justice, identity, sacrifice, and hope. Each of them are important and will remain important through the series.

This is the next epic science-fiction series and I am honored to get the chance to read it before it debuts in August. I hope I don't have to wait long for Book Two!
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When I read the description that said for fans of Red Rising and The Handmaid's Tale I knew I would have to read it. These are two of my all time favorite books. The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis did not disappoint! If I could throw a third book that I saw similarities to it would be Dune by Frank Herbert, who was my first love in science fiction. 
     I really enjoyed everything about this book. The characters were unique, the world building was all encompassing and I truly found the book hard to put down. I need the next book in the series ASAP!
     The story is told from two different points of view. The first being that of the First Sister. A woman in the service of the sisterhood who has achieved rank of First Sister on the star ship she has been assigned to. The sisterhood takes girls at a young age, removes their ability to speak, gives them no name and trains them in the ways of the sisterhood. The second point of view is that of Lito val Lucius a boy from the poorest population who worked his way up to being a duelist in an elite military force. He is paired with Hiro, a non-binary character with whom Lito is in love. 
     The story is immersive and thought provoking and definitely leaves you with a cliff hanger. I highly recommend this book.
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Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

When I started The First Sister, I almost DNF at around four chapters in for reasons I can’t quite articulate, but I am SO glad that I pushed on!

The novel centers around two primary narrators. There is First Sister, a Handmaid’s Tale-esq combination of religious paragon and forced ‘pleasure companion’, serving on an intergalactic space vessel of the Gean empire, and Lito sol Lucius, a duelist representing the Icarri empire, at war with the Geans. The novel is set against the backdrop of our solar system hundreds of thousands of years in the future, after earth has become uninhabitable following an AI uprising and humans have migrated to Mercury, Venus, Mars, and the Astroid belt. 

I think part of what put me off initially is how strongly First Sister’s initial arc and the concept of the Sisterhood as a whole resembles the structure of the Handmaid’s Tale—Sisters in the order fight for the desirable place of First Sister at the captain’s side, watched over and kept in line by other women known as “Aunts”. However, this storyline quickly evolved beyond its somewhat played out origins into something fascinating as the dynamics between the sisters, as well as between First Sister and her captain are explored. I will say that the relationship between Saito and First Sister while sweet does technically fall into my definition of instalove, but I’ll forgive that as a product of the novel’s pacing.

I was equally interested in Lito’s arc as a Duelist—one of a paired set of fighters, a Dagger and a Rapier, who are trained to fight together since childhood. We received a lot of information about this dynamic but I would have loved to see more of the combat aspect of it, as I personally found it to be fascinating. 

Furthermore, The novel tackles issues of identity, gender and otherwise, in a way that is graceful and meaningful. I especially loved and connected with Hiro val Akira, trapped between those they care for and a sense of morality that is core to their very being. The star of the novel was very much the relationships between the characters, with dynamics of friendship, love, romance, and everything in between being explored with a heartwarming, occasionally heart-rending, poignancy. Overall I found The First Sister to be an interesting concept executed better than I anticipated. While the “twist” was quite rapidly predictable for me at least, its revelation still provided a nice amount of catharsis and built to a narrative climax that left me excited to learn more about this world and its characters.
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If I’m being honest, there are two reasons I do advance reviews of books. The lesser of the two is that I want to build sufficient reviewer cred so that I can get advanced copies of highly anticipated blockbusters. The greater of the two is being able to be the first one to discover something amazing and tell all you people about it. Nerd bragging rights and all.

If that is my goal, my reviewer career may have peaked fairly early, because it’s hard to imagine me ever being first out of the gate on something as amazing as The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis.

The letter at the front of the ARC from the Skybound books editor (thanks for the ARC, by the way) compares the book to Handmaid’s Tale, Red Rising, and Ancillary Justice. OK, I thought, that’s fine, it’s his job to sell it after all. But that’s a high standard, and that’s with me knowing Ancillary Justice only be reputation. I’m a big fan of both Margaret Atwood and Pierce Brown, and expected that comparison to be hyperbolic. I went into this expecting to be disappointed. I was not.

Spoiler-free synopsis time. The book is set some centuries after humanity wrecked the Earth, and nearly did the same to Mars when Earth leaned too heavily on the new Mars colony for resources. While Earth and Mars were limping along and killing each other, a bunch of scientists said “fuck this shit” and went and built colonies on Mercury and Venus, using Unobtainium to build technological utopias. (Warning: TV Tropes) But since the humans of Mercury and Venus (the Icarii) aren’t interested in sharing their technology with the humans of Earth and Mars (now united as the Gaens), there’s been a long running war. There’s also the Asters, humans who live in the asteroid belt and are adapted to life in deep space, looked down upon and exploited by both sides.

The Gaens are part military dictatorship, part theocracy, and the First Sister is the ranking priestess aboard a Gaen warship. The Sisters have no voice (literally – they’re rendered incapable of speech, though they can sign among themselves) and serve as … let’s call them comfort women to the Gaen military. The Sisters are there to hear the confessions of soldiers and offer forgiveness, so they don’t go into battle with a guilty conscience, and they’re available sexually to any soldier who wants them, so they don’t go into battle horny. The First Sister is an exception, of sorts, being reserved for the personal use of the captain. The captain of the warship Juno is retiring, however, meaning a new captain is coming aboard who will select a new First Sister. Our protagonist is determined to retain her position and not go back to being available for free use.

Lito is part of the Icarii Special Forces, recovering from physical and mental trauma sustained during the Gaens’ recent victory in conquering Ceres. Icarii Special Forces serve with partners, to whom they are empathically bonded through a neural implant. Lito’s partner Hiro has been off on a classified mission for some time, and Lito is really feeling his absence. Then he receives word that Hiro has turned traitor, and Lito is given the chance to prove his loyalty by hunting his partner down.

The book follows our two protagonists (I don’t think there’s really a “primary” protagonist, despite the book being titled “The First Sister”) as each gets caught up in the machinations of their governments. I’m not going to go any deeper into the books than that - everything I’ve laid out here, save some of the ancient history, is laid out in the first few pages. Read and find out.

Are you a fan of the thrilling action of Red Rising? You’ll find that in The First Sister, though not to the exaggerated Michael-Bay-movie levels you sometimes get from Darrow. Are you a fan of the social commentary of The Handmaid’s Tale? You’ll find that in The First Sister, though it’s not nearly so bleak. There’s a strong dash of The Expanse thrown in as well, primarily in the Belters Asters.

The plot kept catching me off guard - Lewis subverted my expectations at every turn. I kept thinking I had a sense of where the book was going, and then suddenly Lewis would give me a literary punch in the stomach and floor me. And then she did it again.

This book is extremely LGBTQ positive. Gender and orientation are both presented as fluid, and physical intercourse isn’t the be all and end all. Lewis herself identifies as queer, making this book good for the #OwnVoices bingo square (though since it’s not supposed to come out until August, I’m not sure that’s going to help anyone but me).

I really can’t rave about this book enough. It's the first in a series (though it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, thankfully - I hate cliffhangers) and I can’t wait for the next one.

Seriously, this is amazing.
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