A teenager hopes to prove her merit at a prominent space-station school by finding a solution to a plague devastating her home planet, Earth, in this YA sci-fi debut.
Emi Hayden Swift dreams of attending the Intergalactic Institute of Science and Technology. But as IGIST seemingly rejects the 14-year-old’s application, she may have to settle for another school. Tragedy unfortunately follows: She loses her father, Max, to the plague, an infectious black cloud with fractal tentacles that keeps most earthlings hidden in their homes. Now an orphan, she only has Sadee, her flying, orb-shaped droid, and her new pal, Jacqueline “Jack” Lemore, the daughter of Emi’s favorite teacher on Earth. Jack is a space transporter by trade and a misfit by choice—one of a group of humans who genetically modify their bodies with animal attributes. At a recruiting station, Emi takes a general test that scores her a scholarship to a Star League school, which includes IGIST. But first she must undergo a probationary period on the moon, where the IGIST space station is orbiting. Not only does Emi, the first earthling student in two decades, endure Martian bullies, but it’s also clear Martian students have the advantage, with years of prep work and tutoring specifically for IGIST tests. She’s convinced that, in order to prove herself, she’ll need to enter the Agon, a science competition, with a plan and means to thwart the plague on Earth. But when validating her project requires a live sample of the plague, Emi’s proposal could become downright dangerous.
Emi’s determination is her most admirable trait. She’s an appealing heroine who never allows others to discourage her, even as some suggest the new student wait a year for an Agon submission. Similarly, in one scene, she is certain she will fail a test she’s currently taking but refuses to give up. But like all great protagonists, Emi is believably flawed. She, for example, stubbornly insists on working alone despite offers of help, and it’s a long while before she acknowledges the benefits of teamwork. Supporting characters are likewise dynamic: Emi earns her share of allies, but not everyone stays on her side, while apparent antagonists are occasionally surprising. Jack is a standout and headlines her own subplot, in which she stirs up trouble with the Terrans, a terrorist group that targets whatever it deems anti-earthling. But the best player is Sadee, an apt example of the story’s dense characterization and rich technology. Sadee is impressive as tech, communicating via written messages, utilizing a device that provides a brain-to-brain link with Emi. But she’s also the novel’s most endearing character; as Emi equates emotion with color, Sadee glows with a bright variety, signifying whatever feeling she surmises a human would have. During the frenzied final act, for example—which entails a couple of superb plot twists—Sadee, in response to a panicked crowd of people, glows yellow. Larson’s taut descriptions and brief chapters generate a speedy pace, complemented by debut illustrator Jung’s stark black-and-white images that practically burst with detail.
A stellar futuristic tale with an exemplary heroine.