by Meg Pechenick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I absolutely loved ASCENDING, a top-notch space adventure and series debut!
The Vardeshi, an advanced, human-like alien race, came to Earth 25 years ago, made a brief, peaceful visit and left, saying they’d return one day. Avery Alcott had grown up dreaming of that day and watching innumerable fictionalized television series and movies dramatizing that return.
Now a young woman, she is studying linguistics in graduate school when she is presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. Her major professor has been secretly developing a language training system for learning the Vardeshi language based on recordings made during their visit, and he wants Avery to test its capabilities. Avery is thrilled, adjusts her graduate course load, and jumps in. Finding the language far more challenging to learn than the Mandarin she’d previously mastered, Avery digs in and finally achieves proficiency based on the program. She has no way of knowing if what the professor has created and what she’s learned correctly corresponds to the aliens’ actual language.
Then the Vardeshi make contact again. They propose a cultural exchange: 100 of their people to come to Earth and 100 of humanity’s best and brightest to join the Vardeshi in space aboard the many spacecraft or space stations they have in service throughout the galaxy. One human is to go to the Vardeshi home planet itself.
With Avery’s language skill already in place, the Vardeshi select her as the one representative from Earth to travel to Vardesh Prime. She and the other 100 program candidates undergo a quick but intensive training course to prepare them for their upcoming assignments, and she soon finds herself in space aboard the Vardeshi spacecraft, Pinion. However, instead of going as a mere passenger, the captain of the ship offers Avery the unique opportunity to immerse herself in their language, culture, and daily shipboard life as a member of the crew. Avery agrees and is integrated into the small crew of 10 as one of two ‘novi,’ the lowest, introductory rank in the Vardeshi ship’s hierarchy.
The cultural immersion has its drawbacks: the constant thinking of how to act, finding the correct words, always having to be ‘on’ and ‘in the moment,’ but Avery mentally gathers her inner resources and pushes through. Zey, the other novi, serves as her trainer and soon becomes a friend and confidant. Saresh, the ship’s hadazi,
the counselor and advisor to all onboard, is steadfast in his support. But not everyone likes having her there or this whole plan of exchange. Some crew members are blatantly mean and vocal about her and humanity’s inferiority, doing anything in their power to make things tough for her. Others are just dismissive and seem irritated by her presence. And on both Earth and Vardesh Prime, the populations are divided on whether the interplanetary interaction is a wise thing at all. But as Avery continues to gain proficiency in her language skills and duties as a member of the crew, someone else seems determined to make sure she fails and never makes it to Vardesh Prime, by any means possible.
Ascending was an engaging and immersive reading experience from the very first page. Avery is a kind, warm, and likable young woman who is presented with the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream, and she goes for it full-tilt. I thought the author did an outstanding job of describing all the mental issues that arise when someone is immersed in a culture and language so different from their own. In addition, there is a heart-wrenching subplot of being an outsider among your own kind.
The author gives us an Earth that has developed somewhat differently than our current reality, as well as the fascinating alien culture of the Vardeshi. The reader gets a tantalizing glimpse of the other crew members’ home planets (there’s more than one!) as they reminisce about going home during after-dinner musings one night. Hopefully, in future books in the series, readers will be treated to a visit to some of these exotic locations.
The relationships and characters aboard the Pinion are what make this story an exciting page-turner, though. I felt like I knew these individuals by the time the story was going full-on; however, the author never lets you or Avery forget that they are not human. And there is an awareness throughout the story that there could be collateral effects from these two foreign species interacting. They don’t even know if each other’s food could cause adverse and disastrous reactions.
ASCENDING is a top-notch space adventure and is an awesome debut for this new series. I loved it. I recommend this story to readers that like character-driven, soft Sci-Fi tales, with a ‘stranger in a strange land’ vibe. I look forward to reading the next book in the series, Bright Shards, as soon as I can.
I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from Book Sirens.
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