REVIEW: WISTFUL ASCENDING (THE HYBRID HELIX #1)
Superheroes, sentient AIs, and space bears, oh my!...
WISTFUL ASCENDING is a self-published science fiction novel that I didn't necessarily have on my radar, though I have heard some reviewers on YouTube give it high praise. After receiving a free code from the author for the Audiobook, this is one I was happy to work into my Audible rotation.
HOW I RATED IT
4.5/5 Despite an opening that I found odd as well as some humor that didn't quite charm me, I really enjoyed this epic slice of life in space that is brimming with quirkiness and some high stakes action.
This story centers around Rohan, a half human "hybrid" whose (il’Drach) alien side grants him superhuman abilities (although they come with a little bit of a nasty side). Rohan has made a new life for himself aboard a sentient space station named, Wistful, in order to move on from a colorful past in the imperial military. The truth about who he was is slowly revealed over time and I loved how the tangled web of his past was unraveled, bit by bit. In his new life, he's chosen to take up the job of a simple "tow chief" which, in theory, would allow him to life out his days doing the simple, honest work of hauling in ships arriving at the station, as well as guiding those who wish to depart. While most presumably do this job with the help of small towing machinery, Rohan's abilities allow him to simply throw on a mask, fly into space, and do the job by hand. As one might expect though, Rohan's life gets more complicated through a series of events that pushes him further and further toward the person that he used to be. Seeing this struggle to accept who he was and reconcile that with who he thinks he should be was definitely one of the more interesting aspects of his character. It helps that Rohan is a sensitive guy who wants to do good though I sometimes found his deflective, snarky sense of humor to be grating at times (very realistic, but still a little annoying).
Surrounding Rohan is a fantastic cast of exotic alien beings, sentient space ships, and a couple other humans. From Rohan's reptilians friend, to a lovely alien love interest, and even a whole ship full of talking space bears, there are so many fun and distinct personalities to discover. Wistful herself might be my personal favorite and I definitely left with the sense that there is more to learn about her.
This story is described as a space opera and while it definitely checks off all of the boxes required for that subgenre, I'd almost argue that this is mostly a slice of life story of epic, intergalactic proportions (at least for the first 75% or so). Things are definitely action packed throughout, but I think what I found most compelling about the story is that we get to have such an up-close-and-personal view into Rohan's daily life. We see him go to work, get dinner, train for combat, spend time with friends, and date. While that might not sound all that interesting, I think the truly alien setting made every little detail a pleasure to discover. Rohan and some other humans discuss the best places to eat and how different foods are similar or different from what they had on earth. Ursan culture (the space bears) is explored early on, and different alien abilities are described in detail.
In addition to the cozier elements, there is also a rich lore for this universe which is doled out in waves, mostly through revelations about Rohan's past. These characters and species have histories which made me feel like I had a lot to learn, but not that I was missing critical information (or that I was being given too much information, for that matter). A lot of it is rather serious and sometimes dark, but I found it fascinating. Lightening things is an overarching layer of somewhat dry humor. A lot of the characters are quite reasonable (sometimes unreasonably reasonable) and genuinely caring toward one another, but they are also very blunt and often snarky with their banter. I liked all of the characters, but some of these interactions just didn't always work for me, which I think mostly came down to personal preference. Another aspect that didn't click with me was the chaotic prologue. I had a really hard time picturing what was going on and who was involved. I also felt like the story took so long to catch up to this point that it didn't really add much other than to sort of spoil the ending conflict a little. I'm not against prologues in general, this one just felt somewhat unnecessary and led me to worry that I would not enjoy this book until the first chapter started and then I was gripped from there.
The story being mostly confined to a single space station was no problem at all since this place is huge and a lot of the action does take place in space or on neighboring planets/moons. As I mentioned, this is a universe with some deep history between the expanse of the il’Drach empire, the system the Ursans fled from, and a version of earth where being protected by superheroes is a reality. While the story doesn't actually venture to these corners of the universe, a lot of interesting information is shared about them which almost made it feel like we got to see them. I found myself reminded of my experience with learning about alien worlds and societies in the Mass Effect video game series, which I loved and I appreciated all the careful thought that was put into this aspect of the story.
I was lucky enough to listen to the expertly produced audiobook edition. Wayne Farrell somehow manages to make it seem as though the book is narrated by a small army of different narrators instead of just one person. He moves from one accent to the next when delivering character dialogue and his Canadian/American accent for Rohan is so good that I kept forgetting that he is actually British. I was also particularly impressed with how he handled the Ursans. The prose is delivered with similar grace and the action scenes felt punchy and clear, though I am sure some of this can be attributed to Berne's writing.
WISTFUL ASCENDING is a polished and worthwhile piece of science fiction that I think fans of both science fiction and fantasy (and perhaps other genres) can enjoy. I'm very happy I gave it a chance and very grateful to the author for gifting me a code for the audiobook.
(+) Fascinating depictions of life aboard a sentient space station
(+) Extremely high quality narration
(+) Space bears...
(+) Zany side characters and a good-natured main protagonist
(+) Interesting lore with some surprising revelations toward the end
(+) A ton of interesting alien species (yes, including the space bears)
(+) Exciting action sequences throughout the story
(+) A well-executed conclusion
(-) Dry humor that wasn't always to my taste
(-) A chaotic Prologue that didn't really any anything for me