Charlie Jane Anders — sci-fi/fantasy (SFF) author of books such as All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night — has made her YA debut in her latest book Victories Greater Than Death, and it’s, dare I say … out of this world.
The book (the first in a series) follows Tina Mains, who’s known for most of her life that she’s not an average teenager and doesn’t have to worry about being one, because she also holds an interplanetary rescue beacon within her that, when activated, will kickstart her life in an extraordinary way. However, when the day arrives, it’s not exactly what Tina expected. She finds herself carrying the weight of everyone’s expectations of her to be the revered Captain Thaoh Argentian, an alien whose knowledge and DNA lives in Tina. With the help of her best friend Rachael and a trustworthy crew, Tina must step up to save all the worlds from destruction and also herself.
First and foremost, Anders establishes a wonderful cast of characters, beginning with Tina and Rachael. Readers learn about Tina’s rescue beacon and cloning early on, creating a solid foundation for how Tina later begins to explore her identity as herself and as Captain Argentian. While the story is told from a first person POV through Tina, Anders still invites readers into the headspaces of other characters. The crew of the Indomitable and the other Earthling trainees — Damini, Keziah, Elza, and Yiwei — offer insight into their backgrounds that helps inform each of their distinct personalities. On the other side of the war is the book’s main antagonist: Marrant. Rather than being a cut and dried villain, readers are able to follow his fall from heroism. He has complex, but ultimately sinister, motives wrapped up in one intriguing character.
There are two other standout aspects about this book, the first being how Anders explores the idea of identity, specifically how it relates to feeling comfortable in one’s body. Throughout much of the book, Tina begins to question how she fits in with her friends and the Indomitable crew as the clone of Captain Argentian. She’s provided the space to question what it means to inhabit a human body, and what it might feel like to transform more fully into a Makvarian like Captain Argentian was. Similarly, Elza has always known the body she’s meant to be in but must still come to terms with how people view her and her identity. However, being on the Indomitable also provides her the opportunity to continue owning her identity and learning to fully love it. Both girls are able to explore themselves in a beautiful way that’s supported by each other and the rest of the crew.
The other striking aspect, tying into the above, is the way Anders writes consent. Before any character touches another, even if it’s meant to be a comforting gesture, they always ask some variation of, “Can I touch you?” It allows the characters to maintain full control of their bodies until they choose to share themselves. This stood out to me because I also read it as way in which characters can remain comfortable in their own skin, though it’s not explicitly explored in that way. If someone is hyper-sensitive to touch or doesn’t like to be touched because they’re still trying to find themselves in their bodies, unwanted touch, even with the best intentions (e.g. a hug to comfort someone), can throw that discovery off balance. It’s something everyone can take note of and be mindful in real life.
Whether SFF is your thing or not, Victories Greater Than Death is absolutely worth reading. Anders creates a delightful story that readers can quickly become lost in. She takes the time to includes meanings to terms that pop up throughout the book (and also includes a glossary). Her characters are compelling and dynamic, and readers will easily and quickly become attached to them. She acknowledges personal trauma in her characters with care. But most important of all, Anders invites readers, especially queer trans and non-binary readers, into a fiercely comforting and safe space, one where they get to see themselves exist as they are and be heroes of the universe.
Victories Greater Than Death is available for purchase online and in stores.