SPSFC 3 Review: Wistful Ascending

Wistful Ascending is a book that’s much like it’s protagonist – muscular, straightforward, and given to pull its punches and spend a lot of time withholding secrets in an attempt to keep things quiet. Accessible, but what it has to say is stretched across episodic and disconnected subplots.

Rohan has retired – from what, he will not say. But it’s obvious he’s Powered, an il’Drach hybrid from a planet where the Powered are known by another name – Superheroes. The mightiest hybrids join the il’Drach empire’s military as living weapons, the lancers. Given that Rohan now works as a ‘tow chief’ for the sentient space station Wistful, pulling entire star ships in and out of dock… he certainly isn’t one of the weakest hybrids, even if he wishes everyone else assumed he was, and stopped asking him to deal with rogue aliens, stealthy assassins, and Kaiju.

I can see that this book can be popular. It does a lot right. As I said, it’s straightforward, it’s accessible, and those two things alone do a ton of heavy lifting for giving a reader a good time. The trouble is, or at least the trouble for me is, the book doesn’t really feel like it’s saying anything or building up to anything.

Don’t get me wrong – there are a lot of continuing plotlines, mysteries around the worldbuilding and character’s pasts that develop into something larger – but much as it draws from comic-book strengths, it also falls prey to one of the largest failures of the medium. Episodic storytelling with very little connection to itself.

Many elements in the book feel like entirely separate sub-plots that have been relatively arbitrarily mixed together. It feels entirely possible to remove a romance subplot and a connected issue with aliens, or to remove a subplot with other earth visitors and a trip to the surface of a nearby planet swarming with kaiju, or to remove a subplot with a race of savage alien bears, and… leave everything else intact.

A lot of these things just… don’t feel necessary, or central. And as a result, there doesn’t really feel like a central story. I’d pin the long term ramifications of Rohan’s decision to retire, and the issues with his progenitors, as the strongest candidate, but because of how little those issues really interact with the rest of the story, what we have is a few hundred pages of exciting events with some personable characters. And that’s going to be enough for a lot of people – a lot of people are going to love it – but to me, it smells like a thousand missed opportunities to do better.

The scope of this book – a superheroic space opera that both nods to the Golden Age comic books and iconography that left such a cultural impact and pushes forward to what feels like quite a personal story – is epic. Some of the subplots delve into elements of the setting that are legitimately wild. A mysterious planet full of kaiju stomping around, savage aliens struggling to escape an even worse authoritarian government of their own people, shadowy and threatening assassins… but because this material is all so powerful, the fact it doesn’t interconnect weakens it. The impact of colossal events should ripple across the rest of the story – and the strongest ripple across the story is that of Rohan’s own past. We could have had more of that, instead of an adventure-of-the-week style series of subplots that inevitably wind up leaving Rohan in medical to recover.

But that’s me, and I know there are readers who are going to view what I define as ‘weakness’ as an advantage because all of this stuff means there’s the promise of more to be discovered in the next book.

So let’s turn to some of these readers, and my made up panel of imaginary readers who are not quite so critical as I am:

Reader the first: Parasocial Pepper

When there are characters you can absolutely fall for, particularly interesting ones, Pepper’s here for that. Wistful Ascending has a cast of engaging humans and aliens, all viewed through the eyes of Rohan – himself companionable. The only flaw Pepper finds is that some of the elements of the setting’s superpowers, involving a rage flooding the user, felt a little forced – like they kicked Rohan out of his usual mindset… but that’s kind of the point.

Reader the second: Visionary Vic

Vic is not concerned with maintaining the laws of thermodynamics – but they are concerned with things feeling coherent, and Wistful Ascending has been made with enough care to place a thousand plausible touches into the book. Superpowers feel plausible – someone working to push starships around makes sense in a way that delights, as do the design choices necessary to make that a possibility, and the setting reflects many of the larger implications around the details of just how those powers work.

So while this one fell flat for me in terms of plotting, that comes down to a mix of taste and intent. I’m often in the mood for something complicated and tightly engineered by way of plots, and this book is like a superpowered punch in the face with plenty of down-time between comic book panels to catch your breath.

If you’d like to find out if get along with it better than I did – and you may well if you’re into thoughtful superhero-space-opera worldbuilding – you can find out more at the Author’s web site here: https://jcmberne.com/


You can find out more about SPSFC here: https://thespsfc.org

You can find all my reviews and posts dealing with SPSFC 2023 here: https://sinisbeautiful.com/tag/spsfc3/

Disclaimer: Please be aware that I am deliberately trying to take a different perspective to my usual one while judging for SPSFC 2023. Ordinarily I have a very narrow taste profile for what I like, and as part of my writerly practice I usually engage with books by tearing them to shreds and picking through what’s left to see if I can learn anything. I don’t think that’s a helpful point of view to review/judge from, and since reviews are for readers, not for writers, I’ve tried to avoid that here. (As you can see above. Your call on whether or not I succeeded, of course.)

By foozzzball

Malcolm Cross, otherwise known as 'foozzzball', lives in London and enjoys the personal space and privacy that the city is known for. When not misdirecting tourists to nonexistant landmarks and lurking at bus stops, Malcolm enjoys writing science fiction and fantasy with a furry twist.