Three Cogs in an Intergalactic War: A Review of The First Sister
Words By Carolyn Janecek
Published on August 4, 2020 by Skybound Books
Please note: this review contains spoilers for book #1 of The First Sister trilogy.
A chrome and gold statue floats in the air—a square-shouldered figure with a hardened face and hands that, at first glance, look like they are beckoning me. On closer inspection, her hands curl into fists and she is breaking her own chains. The US cover of The First Sister by debut author Linden A. Lewis (she/they) is stunning and evokes the grandeur of the novel’s themes: revolution, freedom, and dignity. I had heard it compared to The Handmaid’s Tale set in an intergalactic war. I heard it had masterful worldbuilding and intense frontline battles. But I was not prepared for The First Sister’s tenderness or how delicately it shatters its characters’ worldviews. I treasure science fiction novels that can balance succinct yet immersive worldbuilding with deeply felt, compelling characters; The First Sister is among them.
The reader is immediately entangled in the war between the Geans and the Icarii, and for all the information we receive, Lewis is remarkably clear in their contextualizing. The Gean people distrust technology after an AI uprising nearly slaughtered humanity. They practice a devout religion on Earth and Mars that inducts young girls as voiceless Sisters, meant to take soldiers’ confessions and pleasure them before they are sent to battle. The Icarii, having developed the technology to thrive on Mercury and Venus, appear to have a Utopian alternative—but the majority of the population lives underground in poverty and their advanced technology and medicine come at a dire price. For much of the novel, the Geans are framed as the primary antagonists, which feels very straightforward as their society is comparable to Margaret Atwood’s Gilead. Many dystopian novels are content to have a singular, vile force that the main characters fight against. Lewis, however, shows us that no system of power is innocent, making the characters’ desire for peace seem more impossible than if they could just turn the tide of the war toward “the good guys.”
Speaking of characters, Lewis alternates the narrative between the three main figures in first-person point of view chapters. The novel begins from the POV of the titular character, First Sister, who goes by her religious rank on the starship Juno rather than by her forgotten name. First Sister has accepted that she never consented to join the Sisterhood as a child, but she’s resigned herself to wanting a quiet life under the protection of a Captain. When that dream is in her reach, it’s ripped away and instead, she’s called upon by the Mother (the head of the Church) to spy on a suspected traitor. If she succeeds, she becomes First Sister of the planet Ceres—a position of power and luxury. If she fails, she will be executed. First Sister’s story is heart-wrenching and Lewis carefully orchestrates her developing romance with the Juno’s new captain within this stark power imbalance. First Sister, most importantly, is more than a character for readers to pity. Despite the constant threats to her life and dignity, she is resourceful and resilient, carving out a foothold in a society designed to use and discard her. Many self-proclaimed allies look First Sister in the eye claiming to be her only savior, her only hope at a livable life. By the end, First Sister recognizes whose promises are false and realizes she can take her freedom for herself. Of course, this storyline verges on the cliché in the science fiction and fantasy genres—a religious tyrant displaced by a resilient, young disciple—but First Sister’s narration and search for someplace (or someone) that feels like home kept me engaged.
The other main characters come from the other side of the war, two elite operatives from the Icarii military: Lito sol Lucius and Hiro val Akira, rapier and dagger, neurologically connected akin to the drift compatible partners in the Pacific Rim franchise. After a mission gone wrong, Hiro defects from the military, and Lito is sent on a mission to assassinate his closest friend. I felt like I could hold the emotional depth between Lito and Hiro as a physical object, even though they spend much of the novel separated from one another. We hear Hiro’s voice through the recordings they leave behind for Lito, who’s listening to these tapes while hunting them. The neural implants add another dimension to their relationship, allowing us to see the way their consciousnesses bump against one another, how their memories can intertwine, and how they help keep each other mentally grounded. I was particularly drawn to Hiro’s character. They’re nonbinary and I always appreciate an author who doesn’t give the reader the satisfaction of knowing a character’s assigned gender. Even without this knowledge, Lewis lets Hiro express both their gender euphoria and dysphoria as an aspect of their experience in their world and with their family, all while making it only a fraction of their whole character and arc. While I had an inkling of what Hiro’s character arc would be from the beginning of the book (I’d explain more, but I don’t want to give too many spoilers), that knowledge didn’t interfere with the gut-wrenching nature of the conclusion.
The characters made me fall in love with the book, but I cannot underemphasize Lewis’s ingenuity with her world-building and the ethical questions they raise about consent and technology. Consent is a central element throughout The First Sister, not only in terms of the Sisterhood among the Geans but also the technological advances of the Icarii. Neural implants are ubiquitous in their society and they do forewarn of the many ethical questions arising as we come closer to such technology. What is consent under duress? Is consent possible within a system of poverty and suppression? Hiro, who grew up with immense privilege, and Lito, who grew up in the underground cities, both have to unlearn the pervasive “truths” about Icarus and the gilded promises of technology. Once they learn where it comes from, how it’s developed and protected, they must decide what they value more: their lives or their morals.
The First Sister was such a pleasure to read. There were a couple of plotlines I came close to guessing accurately and I think anyone who reads a lot of space operas will have a grasp of the formulas Lewis employs in her subplots and themes. But there were also reveals that had me absolutely floored by the end. I loved the voices of the characters, their vulnerability throughout the story, and especially how Lewis puts POC and LGBTQ+ characters front and center in a sci-fi saga (looking at you, Star Wars). It is a relief to know that The First Sister is part of a multi-book deal. Linden A. Lewis left me on the precipice of an intergalactic coup and I’m ready to dive into the next installment.