Monday, 18 December 2017


There is darkness sweeping across the stars.

Most know Androma Racella as the Bloody Baroness: a powerful mercenary whose reign of terror stretches across the Mirabel Galaxy. To those aboard her fearsome glass starship the Maurader, she’s just Andi, their captain and protector.

When a routine mission goes awry, the all-girl crew’s resilience is tested as they find themselves in a most unfamiliar place: at the mercy of a sadistic bounty hunter connected to Andi’s past and a harrowing betrayal.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the galaxy, a ruthless ruler waits in the shadows of the planet Xen Ptera, biding her time to exact revenge for the destruction of her people. The final pieces of her deadly plan are about to fall into place, unleashing a plot that will tear Mirabel in two.

Andi and her crew embark on a dangerous, soul-testing journey that could restore order to their ship—or just as easily start a war that will devour worlds. As the Marauder hurtles towards the unknown, and Mirabel hangs in the balance, the only thing certain is that in a galaxy run on lies and illusion, no one can be trusted.

I was provided with an ARC of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

There's been a lot of online chatter about whether this book deserved to be published, or whether it got a free pass because of Sasha Alsberg's online presence. I think this is neither here nor there when it comes to the quality of the book so I won't bring it in to my review, but I will just say that I feel this book is entirely strong enough to have been published on its own merits. I certainly don't think it's a literary masterpiece or up there with the great YA fantasy novels, but it's certainly well-written and engaging enough to warrant publication. Would it have been picked up without its co-author's "fame"? Who knows, but I don't think it's fair to begrudge her the success she has obviously worked hard for (I can barely write a shopping list, so anyone who can write or even co-write a book gets props from me). If you don't agree with the publisher's decision to pick up Zenith then don't buy it.

Now, quibbles aside, onto the review. I found Zenith to be something of a mixed bag, and an odd one at that. You know how sometimes something is greater than the sum of its parts? They don't really work individually, but they fit together like a very pretty jigsaw? Zenith is like that. The core elements - plot, worldbuilding, characters, dialogue etc - were patchy at best, but when put together, they created a pretty good read. Unfortunately, when I closed the book and started composing my thoughts for a review, these issues only became more glaring. I lost myself in the book (even if I was infuriated or irritated by it), but when I stepped back and processed what I'd just read, my brain started to poke all sorts of holes in it. My thoughts on this book can be packaged into three neat categories; the good, the bad and the ugly.

First up - because I like to be positive - is the good. Zenith has a great premise and is pretty much the definition of a page turner! It's zippy and engaging, and it hooked me from the get-go. I absolutely loved the friendship and bonds between the all-girl crew of the Marauder too (even if I didn't quite buy their badass credentials as much as they themselves seemed to, and this crew of four was a hell of a lot smaller than I was expecting). Andi's protective second-in-command Lira was my favourite, her genuine bond with her captain giving the so-called Bloody Baroness (which is a laugh-out-loud ridiculous alias) some much needed humanity. There's no bitching, no back-biting, no endless conversations about boys; this feels like friendship. A real one. The other two crew members, Brek and Gilly, were fantastic too, sharing a sisterly bond that ranged from blasting spaceships out of the sky to scolding each other for swearing.

The writing style was good - barring a few obvious instances of trying too hard to be quotable. I've never read a co-authored book before and was expecting it to be obviously which bits had been written by who, but the chapters are seamless. The pov switches are nicely done and impeccably timed. The book seemed to know when I was tiring of one character and switched to another. There were some stand-out scenes in the second half of the book; like Andi's meeting with her estranged father and Lira's disastrous visit to her home planet, that really stood out as incredibly well written. There was an overadundance of repetitive flashbacks about the trauma in Andi's past and the subplot about the Queen of Xen Ptera's family history was pretty confusing in early chapters, but, other than those interludes, the writing itself was great.

Unfortunately, next up is the bad. The storyline of this book is not original. At all. Plot and protagonist feel like they've been lifted wholesale from other books and flung into space, and details about body mods and blue-skinned, bald alien women seem to go out of their way to call to mind other sci-fi series (Guardians of the Galaxy and Firefly are two of the more conspicuous ones). The worldbuilding is frustraingly vague too, with names and places thrown at the reader from the get go and, with no reference or explanation, these serve to confuse more than they enlighten.

Details like a character having red-and-white striped eyes, or a man being covered in giant purple spikes, are tossed around inconsistently, meaning you can never really picture a scene because you don't have a damn clue what anyone looks like. There are a couple of glaring instances of lazy writing too. People freeze, have their blood turn to ice or their stomach drop into their toes on entirely too many occasions, and there's an awful lot of talk about huge bangs and explosions of light. In space. I guess someone skipped on their physics lessons in school.

My other big issue was this book was the protagonists. They are, for lack of a better word, assholes. The supporting characters of Andi's crew are fine, but Dex is so two dimensional he'd disappear if he turned sideways, and Andi is utterly reprehensible (more on theat below, dear reader!). If she's not gazing at the stars and sighing about what a troubled badass she is, he's waxing lyrical about her fearsome beauty and deadly skills.

Their relationship hits all the YA love story plot points (which I'm not going to criticise it for because this is a YA book), but it never felt genuine and I never once cared. I prefered Andi's relationship with Lira and the deceased Kalee much more (it's telling that the authors managed to make Andi's relationship with a dead girl more meaningful than her one with Dex). I failed to see why I should care about this pair of idiots. The source of their conflict could have been - and indeed is - explained in a five minute conversation, but they're too busy stabbing and snarling at each other to bother trying to be civil. Am I supposed to want to see this pair together? Because I sure as hell didn't! Dextros (because he's so dexterous. Get it?) flits between cocky flirt, lovesick puppy and barely competent sidekick depending on what the plot requires, and as a result feels more like a plot device than a character. And as for Andi ... well, that brings me rather neatly on to my final section.

And strap yourself in, because this one's a rant. My final thought is on the ugly. Let's be real here. Andi is a mass murderer. We first meet her when she's tallying her kills. She frequently boasts about her reputation and the blood trail she's left across the galaxy. She recalls a job where she and her crew were paid by a man's wife to kidnap said man's mistress and leave her on a barren asteroid to slowly starve to death. Another character reminds her of the time she shot a ship out of the sky only for the debris to rain down on an innocent village and kill its inhabitants. It disturbs me greatly how many YA novels glamorise straight-up murder. Given the current climate (or any climate really), a mass murderer makes for a poor protagonist in my eyes, and trying to pass this off as little more than a troubled heroine backstory leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Sure, Andi had to flee her home planet to escape the death penalty after causing the accident that killed a general's daughter, but she made the choice to become a murderous space pirate from there. She wasn't forced or coerced (even though Dex helped train her, there's no suggestion anywhere that he forced her into killing), so it makes all her guilt feel disingenuous. She made a choice, now she has to live with the consequences of it. There's a lot of talk of regret - and an admittedly cool scene featuring Andi's recurring nightmare of dancing with her dead victims - but just because you feel bad about your actions, doesn't mean you get a pass for them. Maybe I'm being hard on this book, because a trigger-happy protagonist isn't exactly rare in YA, but because the authors go out of their way to bring up Andi's deeds again and again - She's the Bloody Baroness, stars be damned! She's left a trail of blood across the galaxy! Her name strikes fear into the hearts of anyone who's heard it (which is everyone)! - they can't hide the reality of what she is. And that is a murderer. Not a killer, not an assassin, not a baddass; but a murderer.

So why do I rate this book relatively highly, despite lambasting it pretty thoroughly for about two thirds of my review? Well, I was entertained. Books don't have to change the world, and they don't have to stay with you long after you close the pages. Sometimes, you just want to get swept up in a story, and this book did that for me. It made me feel something, even if that feeling wasn't always a good one. Zenith does have a very positive, pro-friendship message too, and correctly posits that family is what you make it, that bonds made through choice and freedom hold tighter than those born of obligation. The scene were Andi's crew gather silently around her while she cries hits ten times harder than any of her forced conflict with Dex. It's just a shame that this element was relegated to mere window dressing a lot of the time. The pockets of originality and quiet scenes between the girls feel like they were written from the heart, whereas all the talk of Andi's troubled past and her beautiful badassery feel like they were written with one eye on a spot on the bestseller lists. If this book had followed its own, more genuine, path rather than forcing its chracters to follow the well-worn steps of other people's stories, I would have enjoyed it so much more.

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