The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis (The First Sister Trilogy #1)

First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars—the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain—Saito Ren—whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is much harder when you’re falling in love.

Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.

TITLE: The First Sister
AUTHOR: Linden A. Lewis with Emily Woo Zeller (Narrator), Neo Cihi (Narrator), Gary Tiedemann (Narrator)
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster Audio
YEAR: 2020
LENGTH: 368 pages (12 hours 32 minutes)
AGE: Adult
GENRE: Science Fiction

Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Main Character(s), Bi/Pan Main Character(s), Genderqueer/Nonbinary Main Character(s).

The short version is that I loved this book and found it to be one of the more satisfying sci-fi books I've read in a while. Fantasy is my preferred genre, and I like my sci-fi squishy, conversation- or thought-driven, and not worried overly much about making sure I know how the FTL functions. This ticked all those boxes in addition to being a thoughtful exploration of various structures of power and how they are used to justify and perpetuate exploitation in the name of some other good. 

THE FIRST SISTER is relationship-driven in the sense that their decisions have implications for other people and they're very aware of this as they proceed. Lito, in particular, has been ordered to hunt down his former partner. While he does want to find Hiro, he hasn't totally made up his mind about what he will do when that confrontation comes. First Sister has been ordered to spy on Captain Ren, also finding herself drawn to her. She's both terrified and intrigued by the captain's condition that restores some parity between them, but also places First Sister in even more danger. 

I love the way the world is built here. There's a history of colonization and and an ongoing conflict, with main characters from different sides of the war. This means there's several places where he get to know what each side's propaganda is about the basic events, which shows what they actually do, what they say about themselves, and what their enemies think of them.  I understand why this book gets compared to THE HANDMAID'S TALE, and while I do think some of that comparison is appropriate, it also made me nervous before I started reading, and gave me a distorted anticipation of how traumatic this book might be. While it does deal with systematic sexual exploitation (mostly of women but implicitly some men as well), it focuses much more on the systems and structures that are controlling and perpetuating this exploitation and lack of agency -- as well as the way that the sister within this exploitative system are encouraged to work against each other in order to support the group as a whole and eke out some measure of comfort and privilege at the expense of those around them. There are many moments when First Sister is terrified of what might happen to her, but much of my trepidation was soothed when it became clear that I was not going to have to read a graphic assault scene just to have the book hammer home how frightening a loss of bodily autonomy can be. Instead, THE FIRST SISTER takes a multifaceted approach to exploring different kinds of exploitation and loss of autonomy, from classism and financial precarity making people vulnerable to medical experimentation, loss of individual freedom and mental autonomy in military settings, to commodification of emotional labor and sexual exploitation in the Sisterhood. 

I like the soft sci-fi approach; things work because they work, they have particular ways that they function, but the story never grinds to a halt to make sure I understand exactly how a mercurial blade can do what it does. The things that it does take the time to specifically explain are much squishier things, like the various ways that people synced by an implant can or can't access each other's minds. Even those come up in the moment as they're needed, when a character is trying to do something and it either succeed or fails. 

There's a pair of revelations towards the end which completely reframed my understanding of some dynamics which had been been in play for most of the book. The reveal is a very cool moment and I absolutely do not want to spoil it, but one of them sits in that sweet spot of being a twist in a deeply personal sense related to one of the main characters without quite changing what the rest of the story means. It's followed up with a different discovery in the same incident, in a delightful moment of revelation and confusion as three seemingly disparate plot threads cohere and the main characters actually meet.

 I like the trio audiobook narrators, in particular I appreciate Emily Woo Zeller's performance, as always. She's narrated several other audiobooks that I've enjoyed and this was no exception.

As the first book in a trilogy, THE FIRST SISTER resolves several major plot points in a way that gets the three main characters to each have a new status quo and an idea of their plan for what's next. Because of the way the story is structured, it makes sense that all three of them would have new situations and goals as the result of what transpired, especially with the upheaval towards the end of the book. I'm excited for the rest of the trilogy, especially for how the structure of the Sisterhood is affected by what transpires next.

*A quick note that this follows a Western anglophone trend of naming the only significant Japanese character “Hiro”. No one instance is automatically a problem, but over time it starts to seem like the main Japanese name fiction authors reach for. Part of what bothers me particularly in this instance is that the name “Hiro” is a traditionally male name in Japanese, and while nonbinary people are not limited to ambiguously-gendered names, I get the sense that this name was chosen for the “Hiro”/“Hero” pun (which is made explicitly at one point. 

Graphic/Explicit CW for bullying, mental illness, emotional abuse, death.

Moderate CW for ableism, sexual content, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, confinement, body horror, racism, dysmorphia, dysphoria, transphobia, misgendering, xenophobia, child abuse, physical abuse, violence, injury detail, medical content, medical trauma, murder, war, colonization.

Minor CW for self harm, rape, vomit.

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