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Persephone Station by Stina Leicht3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsStina Leicht’s Persephone Station is not only her first foray into science fiction, it’s also her first novel to feature not only female protagonists but pretty much an entire cast of women and nonbinary characters. There are couple of guys scattered here and there (one of our heroines has an amiable himbo boyfriend we see for about ten seconds), but mostly, this is a cast that pays tribute to so many of the kickass women of genre fiction, whether we’re talking Harley Quinn or Sarah Conner or whichever badass Charlize Theron is playing this week.

Our setting is the remote colonial world of Persephone. Initially settled by a Catholic mission, Persephone now boasts a single thriving human settlement, Brynner, controlled by the Serrao-Orlov Corporation, which is heavily invested in making sure that the governing United Republic of Worlds doesn’t get wind of the planet’s big secret: there is an intelligent indigenous species known as the Emissaries. While there has largely been peaceful coexistence between the company and the Emissaries, this is about to change, as Serrao-Orlov’s second-in-command, the hissably evil Vissia Corsini, is about to assassinate her way into the CEO’s chair. And when she does, she has some personal business she intends to settle with the Emissaries. An offer they can’t refuse, so to speak.

Standing in Vissia’s way is Rosie, a local crime boss who shares a past and a secret with Vissia, and who now runs the kind of grungy space colony bar that stories like this simply cannot do without. Persephone Station is a book that not only doesn’t apologize for stacking familiar genre tropes on top of tropes like so many Legos, it positively revels in all of them, and Leicht’s brisk, easygoing writing has a way of making them all feel like stepping into a comfy pair of slippers.

Working for Rosie is Angel de la Reza, a mercenary and former Marine with a dark past of her own. Angel’s team consists of Lou, her pilot and lover of all things chocolate; Enid Crowe, sniper extraordinaire; and Sukyi Edozie, a former fellow Marine of Angel’s whose health is declining due to childhood exposure to the kind of virus that gets an entire planet quarantined.

This is where I have to take a moment to appreciate Leicht’s handling of character in particular. At a time when so many SFF writers who still can’t get over the cancellation of Firefly are offering us “found families” to tug at our heartstrings with sentimentality in lieu of genuine human connection and emotional truth, Stina Leicht has an exceptional talent for creating characters who act and feel like actual people. Their conversations sound natural, not like contrived banter, and even when they do banter, or share confidences, they sound like women who are friends, talking. If an emotional moment feels like it’s ready to plunge into all-out bathos, Leicht pulls back or deflects with some smartly-placed humor. In other words, there’s nothing fake about these characters or their relationships, nor does the story have them do unnecessarily dumb things simply to wring unearned emotions out of us. I unabashedly loved all these women, and it takes reading this sort of characterization done well to make you realize how common it is to see it done badly.

But if the novel fumbles at any point, it’s in the way the first half tries to juggle too much plot all at once, necessitating a lot of exposition so we get all the details. To her credit, Leicht’s prose is an absolute model of clarity and flow, so nothing is ever confusing, nor is the pacing hampered. But it does mean there’s much that has to be spelled out before the good stuff kicks in. So Persephone Station, while it’s supremely exciting in its best moments, requires patient reading. The book’s first hundred or so pages do clank a bit, but its final two hundred are an absolute bullet train.

Trouble starts when Rosie sends Angel and her team undercover to a swanky party to take out an especially brutal rival crime boss who has crossed a line too many. Vissia seizes the opportunity to rid herself of two rivals at once, and when Angel’s team hits their target, Vissia has her own sniper waiting to kill the current Serrao-Orlov CEO, who happens to be attending the same party. It’s a perfect setup to frame Rosie and Angel, so that Vissia can move up to the head of the company and eliminate the Emissaries once and for all. But Rosie manages to get Angel and her team out of Brynner in time, heading to the secret Emissary settlement outside of Brynner’s walls to help defend them against the imminent company assault.

If all that wasn’t enough, another player enters the game. Kennedy Liu is a young woman who has only just arrived on Persephone on a mission of her own. Kennedy’s big secret — because everybody here has one — is that her very existence is illegal and shouldn’t be possible. She is actually a sentient AI inhabiting a vat-grown human body, and she has come to Persephone after tracing to this world what appears to be another sentient AI in distress. For the longest time, it feels as if this subplot is, as Roger Ebert used to phrase it, “too much of a muchness,” that it’s weighing the story down with complications it doesn’t need. But the way Leicht manages to tie it together with the main plot at the climax into a single satisfying resolution is very deftly handled.

Leicht’s open acknowledgment of her inspirations as the story is propelled into a military SF take on Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven might feel a little on-the-nose (after all, it’s not exactly subtle naming the colony after Yul Brynner or Angel’s dropship after Akira Kurosawa), but personally, I like an author who’s not afraid to own their influences and homages. Storytellers shouldn’t be shy about enjoying great stories, after all. In addition to its thrilling action and adventure, Persephone Station explores a number of themes, though not necessarily with equal depth. Colonialism is a big one, but the book doesn’t really explore that at a level much deeper than “Colonizers bad, let’s shoot them.” More resonant are its personal themes: bonds of friendship and family, what it takes to forgive yourself past sins, and the ethical boundaries between humanity and technology, and how closely the two can combine before one overwhelms the other.

And just how feminist is this book? Well, very, but in a different way than you might expect. It’s not a “smash the patriarchy” story, because there’s no patriarchy here to smash. Rather, as a male reader, I was thinking to myself how this is exactly a story that lets women readers see female heroes in SF the way I was allowed to see male heroes in all the SF I grew up reading, as characters simply inhabiting a future in which there was no question that they belonged, and that the spaceways held the promise of whatever exciting destinies they chose to make for themselves. If you’ve been looking for a thrilling science fiction saga that treats “The Future Is Female” as an actual statement of purpose rather than just a snappy catchphrase, here you go.