‘Persephone Station’ by Stina Leicht

I enjoyed ‘Persephone Station’ and I’d love to read more novels by Stina Leicht. Her approach is fresh and inclusive. She delivers an action-packed story about a heroic struggle against impossible odds and still manages to weave humour throughout the story.

Her military SF hardware is credible and impressive without ever devolving into ‘see-how-big-my-gun-is?’ fetishism. The aliens she imagines really are alien, literally having to alter themselves even to communicate with humans. Her AI technology (she calls them AGIs) is fascinating. She imagines a sentient AI in a human body as ‘a machine wearing a human-suit’ and then compares them to Mechs – war robots with human riders inside- which she sees as humans wearing a machine suit.

There are strong themes about diversity amongst sentient creatures. At the same time, the body count is high. the battle scenes are graphic and there are a couple of assignations, a bit of attempted genocide and torture scene to keep everyone focused.

The storytelling seemed classic SF at first. We got dropped into the middle of the action and invited to catch up. The cast was fairly large and very diverse, nobody’s motives were clear and there was a lot to learn about the world the action was taking place in. My favourite way to start an SF story.

Then, as I started to understand the story, I was surprised by how self-aware the trope twisting was. ‘Persephone Station’ reimagines Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ with the villagers as a sentient alien species on a remote planet, the bandits as an evil corporation led by a merciless woman and the Samurai as a group of female mercenaries willing to take on a suicide mission. Just in case I missed that point, the AI controlling the Drop Ship our mercenaries fly in is called Kurosawa. Then there were the references to Persephone and Kora, Greek Myths about an abducted woman ruling in Hell that fit the story perfectly but still had that see-what-I-did-there? Easter Egg Hunt feel to them.

Stina Leicht twisted the Military SF tropes so hard, they cried. Military SF is often a testosterone-laden sub-genre populated with laconic-to-the-point-of-emotional-constipation heroic males with a thing for big guns. In Persephone Station, the only roles men get to play are as lover (off-screen), father (dead) and assassination victim (soon to be dead) and cannon-fodder (also soon to be dead). Anyone interesting is either female or of a non-male gender. This seemed to have little effect on the bad guys who were evil in the same way a male might have been in the same circumstances, but the relationships between the good guys were quite different. Yes, they were aggressive, competitive and lethal but they were also more willing to express their emotions, more obviously committed to each other and way wittier.

I liked the AI at the centre of the story. She (of course, it was a she) and her sisters (again, of course, she had sisters) had an interesting way of looking at both humans and other AIs. They were powerful and confident without needing to be dominant or territorial.

There were some things that lessened my enjoyment of the book. I felt at an emotional distance from the characters until the last half of the book. I was told what they were thinking and feeling but I wasn’t given enough to feel it with them. Once the fighting started, everything got better but in the build-up, the emotional commitment felt less real. I also felt the pacing lagged in the middle of the book. I regretted that the aliens faded away into passivity. The book started from the point of view of the aliens. They were very interesting aliens and yet we never returned to their point of view and by the end, they played an almost entirely passive role in the plot.

I listened to the audiobook version of ‘Persephone Station’. Audiobooks are usually my preferred way of reading SF but on this occasion, I’d have swapped over to an ebook version if one had been available. Maria Liatis’ narration wasn’t bad but it lacked some things that would have made it easier to enjoy ‘Persephone Station’. With a couple of exceptions, the characters weren’t given voices that were distinctive enough that I knew who was speaking as soon as I heard them. Kurosawa was meant to have a Japanese accent. The phrasing was there but the accent wasn’t. Maria Liatis is easy to listen to but there were times when her default rhythms were at odds with the text. She managed dialogue well but seemed not to understand the technical descriptions and put stresses in odd places.

None of this stopped me from enjoying ‘Persephone Station’. I’ll think Stina Leicht is a talent to watch.

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