A novella rarely pulls me into a world and leaves me with so many unanswered questions yet wanting more. However, Alsberg and Cummings write a white-knuckle ride of a space opera that rivals the relaunch of Battlestar Galactica with their collaboration Zenith: The Androma Saga #1. Viceral and viscous, like the bloodstained kill counts on the katanas of the protagonist (Androma Racella), the story sticks with you days after reading.
Mechanically, the novella is tight. Words evoke strong emotion in the reader. Deep characterizations are a rare, welcome quality in the format. While there exists some flat archetype-characters, the brevity of the format prevents large character expositions. Likewise, I see a geographic naming convention. At least two character names relate to islands in the eastern Mediterranean Sea region. As an author, I hate pointing this out - I am terrible at unique names.
World-building is clearly present. There are some clear nods to science fiction conventions, both obvious and not. A sentence of once-mentioned-and-never-explained proper nouns with the slapping-words-together-like-German convention familiar to cyberpunk makes an appearance. Cyborgs (of a sort) and androids of the translucent replicant variety appear as well. It feels like an old leather jacket, it just fits perfectly after years of wear. Just in time for my cranium dorsal fin to be cool again.
Finally, the action sequences read as novelization of a role-playing game experience (win!) and are free from the typical mechanics of both genre (sci-fi) and meta-genre (YA) (SUPER WIN!). Deus ex machina, I speak of you..
Thematically, however, I worry about this work. Maybe it’s the genre (especially the cyberpunk nods) or my personal view of the genre which gets me thinking about a big question that this novella leaves unanswered - “Why do the powerful women of this universe suffer from psychoses while the powerful men do not?”
The captain of the Mauderer, Androma Racella (Andro - Greek for male or masculine, by the way) is a classic narcissist. She surrounds herself with others that adore her and ignore her deeply flawed character. Her arrogance cuts as hard as her swords. She ignores others’ feelings with cruel japes. With her skin-tight leather suit and color-treated hair, she focuses on her beauty and image more than those around her. She uses anyone and everyone in her path for her own ends, especially those that threaten her ego by not doting on her. Moreover, her coldness toward her unrequited love with former captain Dextro indicates that he threatens her ego, a weakness her fragile ego cannot indulge. So, she eliminates the chance of repetition by having an all-female crew.
An important antagonist in the story, Nor Solis, is a megalomaniac. At every turn, Nor reminds those around her that she is the one in charge. It’s clear to the reader that Nor is intended to be a villain, perhaps an even a greater one than Governor Cyprian.
Supporting female characters are likewise flawed. The authors even concede that one of them is psychopathic. The most stable, Lira, the second in command under Androma, has the trappings of a detrimental caretaker. She allows Androma’s cruel japes slide and allows Androma to dismiss her concerns for her captain without protest. I look forward to seeing Lira’s character development in future installments to see if codependency manifests in Lira.
In contrast to the women of the story, the men are generally fully developed and fully sane. Dextro is confident, well-planned and knows his quarry. He neither boasts about his victory, nor holds onto past failures nor hates Androma for stealing his ship and leaving him for dead. He makes butt-hurt remarks early into Chapter Three about the crew’s all female gender, but he seems to have no issue working with them for the mission. Dextro’s masculine swagger balances his romantic side, displayed as a side mission to rekindle his love affair with Androma, even though he rationally identifies the mission’s fantastical quality.
Likewise, Governor Cyprian is portrayed as a clever, calculating politician, traits that parallel reality. Cyprian also has a very human side; he’s a loving father that wants to be reunited with his son, presumably his only child. Out of options, he displays humility enough to approach Androma for help, even though he previously blamed her for the death of his heiress daughter. Granted, his savvy makes the offer’s alternative unpalatable to Androma.
The women of Zenith are all badasses. We need more badass women in our stories. However, at what subconscious cost do these badass traits come for the women presented in Zenith? Does demonstrating badassery in women require that they are broken or scarred mentally in this universe? If so, why? Perhaps most importantly, if you move this story’s theme into the audience’s world, what does this theme mean for the girls and the women of our world? Do Androma, Lira, Nor, and the others show men and women of our world that power comes at a cost for women, but not men?
Picking up Zenith, I did not expect to be confronted with any philosophical issues. To be fair, my friend and fellow author J.D. Netto merely mentioned his involvement with the graphic cover (which is beautiful, albeit I would have liked to see some context between the graphic and the work itself), and that’s where my interest in the saga began. Partly as mutual support for authors in my extended network, partly to see who might enjoy my own projects, I did not read the story as a pass-time.
In the end, Zenith is a well-constructed story, especially for adults with enough experience to separate the reality of power and leadership from the fantasy Alsberg and Cummings present.
With such a strong debut as an author, I’m excited to see Sasha Alsberg develop her independent voice. I look forward to reading the next installment of the saga as well. Finally, I wait eagerly to see how Alsberg and Cummings answer the question of power and women in this universe.