A Spaceship Repair Girl Supposedly Named Rachel

by Richard Roberts

Cover image

Publisher: Mystique Press
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-63789-763-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 353

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Rachel had snuck out of the house to sit on the hill, to write and draw in rare peace and quiet, when a bus fell out of the sky like a meteor and plowed into the ground in front of her. This is quickly followed by a baffling encounter with a seven-foot-tall man with a blunderbuss, two misunderstandings and a storytelling lie, and a hurried invitation to get into the bus and escape before they're both infected by math. That's how Rachel discovers that she's able to make on-the-fly repairs to bicycle-powered spaceships, and how she ends up at the Lighthouse of Ceres.

The title comes from Rachel's initial hesitation to give her name, which propagates through the book to everyone she meets as certainty that Rachel isn't really her name. I enjoyed this running gag way more than I expected to.

I don't read enough young adult and middle-grade books to be entirely clear on the boundaries, but this felt very middle-grade. It has a headlong plot, larger-than-life characters, excitingly imaginative scenery (such as a giant space lighthouse dwarfing the asteroid that it's attached to), a focus on friendship, and no romance. This is, to be clear, not a complaint. But it's a different feel than my normal fare, and there were a few places where I was going one direction and the book went another.

The conceit of this book is that Earth is unique in the solar system in being stifled by the horrific weight of math, which infects anyone who visits and makes the routine wonders of other planets impossible. Other planets have their own styles and mythos (Saturn is full of pirates, the inhabitants of Venus are space bunnies with names like Passionfruit Nectar Ecstasy), but throughout the rest of the solar system, belief, style, and story logic reign supreme. That means Rachel's wild imagination and reflexive reliance on tall tales makes her surprisingly powerful.

The first wild story she tells, to the man who crashed on earth, shapes most of the story. She had written in her sketchbook that it was the property of the Witch Queen of Eloquent Verbosity and Grandiose Ornamentation, and when challenged on it, says that she stole it to cure her partner. Much to her surprise, everyone outside of Earth takes this completely seriously. Also much to her surprise, her habit of sketching spaceships and imaginative devices makes her a natural spaceship mechanic, a skill in high demand.

Some of the story is set on Ceres, a refuge for misfits with hearts of gold. That's where Rachel meets Wrench, a kobold who is by far my favorite character of the book and the one relationship that I thought had profound emotional depth. Rachel's other adventures are set off by the pirate girl Violet (she's literally purple), who is the sort of plot-provoking character that I think only works in middle-grade fiction.

By normal standards, Violet's total lack of respect for other people's boundaries or consent would make her more of a villain. Here, while it often annoys Rachel, it's clear that both Rachel and the book take Violet's steamroller personality in good fun, more like the gentle coercion between neighborhood friends trying to pull each other into games. I still got rather tired of Violet, though, which caused me a few problems around the middle of the book.

There's a bit of found family here (some of it quite touching), a lot of adventures, a lot of delightful spaceship repair, and even some more serious plot involving the actual Witch Queen of Charon. There is a bit of a plot arc to give some structure to the adventures, but this is not the book to read if you're looking for complex plotting or depth. I thought the story fell apart a bit at the tail end, with a conflict that felt like it was supposed to be metaphorical and then never resolved for me into something concrete. I was expecting Rachel to eventually have to do more introspection and more direct wrestling with her identity, but the resolution felt a bit superficial and unsatisfying.

Reading this as an adult, I found it odd but fun. I wanted more from the ending, and I was surprised that Roberts does not do more to explain to the reader why Rachel does not regret leaving Earth and her family behind. It feels like something Rachel will have to confront eventually, but this is not the book for it. Instead we get some great friendships (some of which I agreed with wholeheartedly, and some of which I found annoying) and an imaginative, chaotic universe that Rachel takes to like a fish to water. The parts of the story focused on her surprising competence (and her delight in her own competence) were my favorites.

The book this most reminds me of is Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. It is, to be clear, nowhere near as good as The Phantom Tollbooth, which is a very high bar, and it's not as focused on puns. But it has the same sense of internal logic and the same tendency to put far more weight on belief and stories than our world does, and to embrace the resulting chaos.

I'm not sure this will be anyone's favorite book (although I'm also not the target age), but I enjoyed reading it. It was a great change of pace after Nona the Ninth. Recommended if you're in the mood for some space fantasy that doesn't take itself seriously.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-10-24

Last modified and spun 2022-10-25