Ascending

by James Alan Gardner

Cover image

Series: League of Peoples #4
Publisher: Eos
Copyright: November 2001
ISBN: 0-380-81329-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 361

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This is really the fourth book of a series of which I'd only read the first. There aren't many connections to the previous two books, but there are plenty of mentions. You definitely want to read Expendable before reading this book since it introduces the major characters and provides lots of world background that this book builds on. The other two are optional, but if you're obsessive about reading series in order, you'll want to look for Vigilant and Hunted first.

I was nervous about this book. The protagonist, Oar, was my least favorite character of Expendable. In the viewpoint of that novel, she acted like a spoiled ten-year-old, one with few interesting characteristics and a personality that dragged the story down and became downright obnoxious by the end of the book. Thankfully, Gardner either has a much better handle on her or she's a far better first-person protagonist than a supporting character (and I'm inclined to think the latter).

Since the events of Expendable, Oar has been dozing in the sun, slipping into the fugue that plagues her people (as well as recovering from the injuries she suffered in the previous book). She's woken up by a strange orange man who tells her that the High Council is on its way to cleanse the evidence of what happened in Expendable, most certainly including her, and he's come to spirit her away to be a living witness. Soon, Oar finds herself having adventures on a living spaceship, encountering a strange god-like being who is apparently responsible for her coming back from the dead, reuniting with Festina Ramos (the hero of Expendable), and exploring the mysteries of one of humanity's benefactor races.

Oar's frequently childish arrogance, tediously annoying in a supporting character, is a brilliantly ironic narrative voice. She's a very self-conscious and self-expressive story-teller, using Capital Letters for important concepts, adding occasional hilarious footnotes to clarify things the reader may have missed, and providing a constant MST3K-style commentary on the progression of the story. The style is postmodern to the core, consciously self-aware that a story is being told, frequently addressing the reader, and parodying pulp storytelling every inch of the way. Oar's side commentary on the Important Points of the story is almost as good as a running Tough Guide to Fantasyland and yet it tells a perfectly functional and surprisingly deep psychological subplot at the same time. Gardner populates the rest of the book with slightly twisted space opera characters and then lets Oar narrate with a blunt common-sense honesty that sometimes mimics the reader's unspoken thoughts and sometimes contradicts them so neatly that I laughed out-loud. At the same time, Oar betrays a deep uncertainty and loneliness that she never states explicitly but that gives an inward edge to most of her comments. Festina occasionally makes an observant comment on Oar's attitude that opens a new depth of meaning without taking away any of the postmodern humor. Both sides work.

The first-person voice is far and away the best part of the book. The plot and the characters provide opportunities for Oar to be refreshingly blunt or naively ironic, but left on their own, they're not particularly compelling. Briefly summarized, Oar escapes strange aliens, meets a different all-powerful alien who will serve as a plot guide for the rest of the book, accidentally runs into useful supporting characters, gets trapped by the strange aliens again, confronts them with the help of the wise and sarcastic guardian, and thereby uncovers Deep Secrets and Saves Her People. (The capitalization thing is contagious.) The characters involved are mostly silly, although the wise, all-powerful alien is also enjoyably sarcastic. A few times, Gardner seems to try for deeper emotional pathos for characters other than Oar (such as the mail-order bride or the fate of the male Zarett); each time it feels oddly out of place among such a parade of surrealistic silliness. Thankfully, Oar has about as much patience as the reader does and either keeps things moving along or complains entertainly about how boring they are, which makes the weakness of her surroundings forgivable.

I like the other part of Gardner's universe (the Spark Lords setting of Trapped) better than the Expendables and their surrounding politics. It's all a bit too silly and unbelievable to generate much emotion and not consistently funny enough to be entertaining as pure humor. Oar's narrative voice, however, is brilliant, fits the weird duality of the universe, and somehow makes both sides make sense (most of the time). By the end of the book, I was laughing at her perspective and deeply moved by her struggle to stay alive, all at the same time. The plot is weak and the other characters serviceable at best, but I still recommend Ascending just for Oar.

Followed by Radiant.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-07-22

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21