Book review: Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

(cover image courtesy Titan Books)

It’s a rare thing for anyone to ever have an abiding sense of destiny.

Sure, many of us might have a fairly strong sense of where it is we want to head in life or who we would like to be, but knowing deep in the very fabric of our beings what the rest of our life will look like and what we will accomplish is not ordinarily the stuff of mere mortal beings.

Unless, of course, you are Tina Mains, the protagonist of Charlie Jane Anders’ Victories Greater than Death – the name is informed by the idea that truly great and empowering things cannot be stopped and will endure beyond the cessation of life – who has known since the age of 13 that she is a very unique person indeed, with a wholly extraordinary path to travel.

And what a destiny awaits.

Tina is the human-appearing clone of an alien military hero, Captain Thaoh Argentian, a purple-skinned Makvarian whose list of accomplishments was so long and gloried that people throughout the Royal Fleet of the Firmanent, to which she belonged, still talk of her in hush and reverential tones.

So, no pressure then? Nah, none at all; in fact, while many of us might find ourselves quaking in our boots at the prospect of being the living embodiment of such a hero and of reviving and completing such a luminously laudatory legacy, one which involves defeating a ruthlessly fascistic enemy – this enemy lauds hominid-shaped lifeforms over all others to the point where they are actively and horrifically working to kill non-bipedal lifeforms – Tina is eager to get going, thrilled at the idea of realising her pre-determined potential.

“‘Marrant, even if you kill me, that doesn’t mean I’ve failed,’ I hear myself say. ‘ There are victories greater than death. I might not live to see justice done, but I can see it coming …” (PP. 19-20)

But when her beacon goes off, and her alien allies and mortal enemies swarm earth in search of her, Tina quickly discovers that even for cloned heroes there’s a big, rather alarming gap between what you envisage you will be and what you will accomplish, and what actually happens in the real world (or galaxy for that matter).

In short, while Tina has Argentian’s skills, she doesn’t inherit the hero’s personal memories which proves kind of tricky when everyone, and that includes her arch nemesis and onetime friend, Marrant, are expecting her to be the saviour of the universe reborn, a deficiency that’s all the more apparent when the fate of the free galaxy hangs in the balance as the ironically named Compassion seek to expunge all unacceptable life from the face of every planet they come across.

An exuberant race across the galaxy that is as much about self-discovery and being truth to who you actually are as it is about dazzling, high-stakes action, Victories Greater than Death is an exhilarating joy to read, in part because Anders celebrates at every turn how much richer we all are when diversity and difference is celebrated rather than reviled.

In the world of Victories Greater than Death, characters’ choice of personal pronouns is wholly respected, their sexual identities are accepted without a hint of judgement and the multiplicity of lifeforms and cultures and practices is seen as nothing other than the way things are and should be.

In much the same way that The West Wing is an idealised version of the American political process, Victories Greater than Death is the world as it would be if diversity was simply unquestioningly accepted as the natural expression of people who won’t always, if fact, rarely ever, fit into the narrow boxes of acceptability that the less adventurous among us try to keep shoving them into.

Charlie Jane Anders (image courtesy Macmillan Publishers)

If that means you’re prone to dismiss Victories Greater than Death as a fairytale perfect vision of a world which can never be, think again and think hard.

For Anders presents us with a world that can and does exist and which, if embraced unreservedly, can make everyone’s lives infinitely richer and society a thousand times better.

It is the naturalness of everyone’s respect for the queer diversity of life that makes this thrillingly fun novel such a refreshingly revelatory read; not one person acts like respecting who someone is or what they do is some sort of chore, rather they simply live it out, evidence that basic humanity can and should just come naturally.

At no point do you feel like Victories Greater than Death is some clunky act of awkward political correctedness; in fact, in a narrative filled to the brim with grand excursions of self-discovery by Tina, her best friend Rachael (who comes along for the ride) and a host of others, and battles so richly, excitingly epic that you feel like you are there in the thick of action, Anders wondrously well-written love letter to inclusion and respect feels like as natural and possible as it actually is.

It also helps that the novel is brilliantly funny too.

“My tactical station is broken. Every time I squint at it, I see a Compassion ship coming out of spaceweave, about to blow us to pieces. The Merciful Touch, or just some other barbship or spikeship. And then I look again, and it’s just a random space goober. Either the Compassion has gotten way better at masking their radiation trails, or my threat awareness is cranked up way too high.” (P. 256)

While there are a lot of serious elements at play of a end of the galaxy type seriousness, with truth and humanity fighting a do-or-die battle against evil in its most cruelly dismissive of forms, there is a lot of life, love and humour in a story that recognises how much we can laugh and bond and be cared for by others even in the face of crushing terror.

It’s this celebration of the human spirit that is a core element in Victories Greater than Death and which gives it a beating heart and soul that feels like a necessary salve in a world that seems determined to wipe diversity and its importance from the face of a troubled world.

There is an adventurousness of spirit that suffuses this novel which is as apt to take us on galaxy spanning romps through death, danger and coming of age as it is to deep dive into the gloriously good and diverse ways in which life expresses itself.

If ever there was a case for why we should drop the judgement and ratchet up the inclusive acceptance, it is Victories Greater than Death which is a gem of an imaginative novel.

With the extravagantly good worldbuilding alone worth the price of admission, this engrossingly-good novel takes us on an imaginatively cast journey into the heart of good versus evil, while also empathetically exploring the aching need all of us have for unconditional love, acceptance and connection, and the world’s pressing need for recognition of life in all its multitudinous, diverse wonder within which lies the greatest of all adventures and the chance to find the destiny that awaits us all when we truly know and celebrate who we are.

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