I’ve been doing a lot of reading (and not a whole lot of writing) over the past few months. This has been a bad thing–not writing reviews all the time makes me feel sad but also means I often forget what I’ve read because I’m not logging it (and don’t even get me started on the cycle of repurchasing and returning books that I’ve realized I have already devoured). But it also has given me time to pause and survey some of the big ol’ copycat patterns that emerge across genre fiction in a given publishing cycle. I was on a craving some outer space science fiction, and realized that I had just read three books–YA, adult, and crossover–all published in 2019, all featuring female protagonists of diverse backgrounds, across four seasoned authors: Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie, and Salvaged by Madeleine Roux. (I promise I’ll get around to proper reviews of Hullmetal Girls and Salvaged.)
Rockstar authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (aka geniuses behind the brilliant epistolary experimental fiction series The Illuminae Files) team up again in this first book in a brand new YA SFF series following a ragtag group of misfits that stumble across a much larger conspiracy and hidden history that could destroy the universe. Written in a more traditional prose style, with alternating point of view characters, Aurora Rising takes place in the year 2380, in which cadet Tyler Jones finds an emergency pod on the eve of his graduation–and by choosing to save the young woman trapped in stasis, he loses his opportunity to pick the ace squad he should have gotten as the top of the class. Sure, he’s still got his sister as his diplomat envoy and his best friend Cat as his pilot, but the rest of the team leaves a little to be desired.
Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley, said young woman awakened from a 200 year nap, finds herself in a new world completely alone–and also the wielder of some bizarre new space/time warping superpowers that could be the spark that ends the universe. Luckily, she has some new protectors (who also become her friends) to help out in that last department…
One of my all-time favorite tropes in film and literature is Assembling The Team. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I was immediately predisposed to like Aurora Rising with its version of Avengers Assemble: Ragtag Misfits Edition™. One of the most comforting things about this trope is the fact that each character has to get over their baggage and form connections with each other in order to complete their heist/objective/universe-saving task (usually after several failures). In this regard, Aurora Rising delivers in spades. What starts as a smaller mystery involving a single character out of time and her uncertain past blossoms into a roaring ‘this could mean the end of everything’ secret–Aurora, Tyler, Cat, Finian, Kal, Scarlett, and Zila all have key roles to play in this drama. And that’s cool.
While I am a huge fan of this general trope, the reason a book or film is successful within its bounds relies heavily on the strength of its characters. If you’re going to give us the Fellowship of the Ring, the audience has to care about the individual members, right? Unfortunately, Aurora falters in this department. There are seven different characters (each with a POV chapter), each has some kind of relationship drama with another member of the cast (with the exception of one character who is entirely disengaged and also a sociopath), and each exploit archetypal character tropes. There’s the tomboy fighter pilot desperately in love with her best friend; the alpha golden boy leader who actually is earnest and responsible (think: Steve Rogers); the gorgeous redhead who can do kung-fu but also salaciously uses her sexuality to get men to give her what she wants; the savant tech geek alien who pushes everyone away with his biting sarcasm because he, like, doesn’t even NEED friends; the warrior elf alien that is strong and silent and despised by his own tribe but now finds purpose and (insta)love with his new team; the Chosen Girl with the Superpowers who must Be Protected at all costs; and the aforementioned sociopath scientist who observes them all. Also: instalove is the worst. Also also: it’s incredibly frustrating that each major pairing (because of course almost every member of this ragtag team is paired off into a romance) is heterosexual.
To make things even harder, the ratio of action to character development is woefully unbalanced–it’s hard to really nail multiple POV characters in a single book, especially if the word count is relatively low, and Aurora just doesn’t spend enough time with any single character to truly build a connection with the reader. Plus, with so much happening in the story (flying from one location to another to find one artifact/answer or another) it’s hard to focus on really understanding these characters–instead, Kaufman and Kristoff play up each characters’ idiosyncrasies in lieu of development. (Perhaps one of my biggest pet peeves in fiction: picking a “quirky” trait for a character and obsessively waving it in readers’ faces ad nauseam.)
If you can get past the character muppetry, and if you’re a sucker for a fast paced plot, Aurora Rising really starts cooking around the novel’s midpoint, leading to a triumphant last act… and, while the emotional impact of the ending of the book is somewhat dulled by the aforementioned lack of character connection, there’s enough to compel me to come back for book 2. (Good thing it’s out really soon.)
Rating: 6 – Decent (with some major reservations), but I’ll tune in for book 2