Review: Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Aug 20 21:31:54 PDT 2023

Some Desperate Glory
by Emily Tesh

Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2023
ISBN:      1-250-83499-6
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     438

Some Desperate Glory is a far-future space... opera? That's probably
the right genre classification given the setting, but this book is much
more intense and character-focused than most space opera. It is Emily
Tesh's first novel, although she has two previous novellas that were
published as books.

The alien majo and their nearly all-powerful Wisdom have won the war by
destroying Earth with an antimatter bomb. The remnants of humanity were
absorbed into the sprawling majo civilization. Gaea Station is the lone
exception: a marginally viable station deep in space, formed from a
lifeless rocky planetoid and the coupled hulks of the last four human
dreadnoughts. Gaea Station survives on military discipline, ruthless
use of every available resource, and constant training, raising new
generations of soldiers for the war that it refuses to let end.

While Earth's children live, the enemy shall fear us.

Kyr is a warbreed, one of a genetically engineered line of soldiers
that, following an accident, Gaea Station has lost the ability to make
except the old-fashioned way. Among the Sparrows, her mess group, she
is the best at the simulated combat exercises they use for training.
She may be the best of her age cohort except her twin Magnus. As this
novel opens, she and the rest of the Sparrows are about to get their
adult assignments. Kyr is absolutely focused on living up to her
potential and the attention of her uncle Jole, the leader of the

Kyr's future will look nothing like what she expects.

This book was so good, and I despair of explaining why it was so good
without unforgivable spoilers. I can tell you a few things about it,
but be warned that I'll be reduced to helpless gestures and telling you
to just go read it. It's been a very long time since I was this
surprised by a novel, possibly since I read Code Name: Verity for the
first time.

Some Desperate Glory follows Kyr in close third-person throughout the
book, which makes the start of this book daring. If you're getting a
fascist vibe from the setup, you're not wrong, and this is intentional
on Tesh's part. But Kyr is a true believer at the start of the book, so
the first quarter has a protagonist who is sometimes nasty and cruel
and who makes some frustratingly bad decisions. Stay with it, though;
Tesh knows exactly what she's doing.

This is a coming of age story, in a way. Kyr has a lot to learn and a
lot to process, and Some Desperate Glory is about that process. But by
the middle of part three, halfway through the book, I had absolutely no
idea where Tesh was going with the story. She then pulled the rug out
from under me, in the best way, at least twice more. Part five of this
book is an absolute triumph, the payoff for everything that's happened
over the course of the novel, and there is no way I could have
predicted it in advance. It was deeply satisfying in that way where I
felt like I learned some things along with the characters, and where
the characters find a better ending than I could possibly have worked
out myself.

Tesh does use some world-building trickery, which is at its most
complicated in part four. That was the one place where I can point to a
few chapters where I thought the world-building got a bit too
convenient in order to enable the plot. But it also allows for some
truly incredible character work. I can't describe that in detail
because it would be a major spoiler, but it's one of my favorite tropes
in fiction and Tesh pulls it off beautifully. The character growth and
interaction in this book is just so good: deep and complicated and
nuanced and thoughtful in a way that revises reader impressions of
earlier chapters.

The other great thing about this book is that for a 400+ page novel, it
moves right along. Both plot and character development is beautifully
paced with only a few lulls. Tesh also doesn't belabor conversations.
This is a book that provides just the right amount of context for the
reader to fully understand what's going on, and then trusts the reader
to be following along and moves straight to the next twist. That makes
it propulsively readable. I had so much trouble putting this book down
at any time during the second half.

I can't give any specifics, again because of spoilers, but this is not
just a character story. Some Desperate Glory has strong opinions on how
to ethically approach the world, and those ethics are at the center of
the plot. Unlike a lot of books with a moral stance, though, this novel
shows the difficulty of the work of deriving that moral stance. I have
rarely read a book that more perfectly captures the interior experience
of changing one's mind with all of its emotional difficulty and
internal resistance. Tesh provides all the payoff I was looking for as
a reader, but she never makes it easy or gratuitous (with the arguable
exception of one moment at the very end of the book that I think some
people will dislike but that I personally needed).

This is truly great stuff, probably the best science fiction novel that
I've read in several years. Since I read it (I'm late on reviews
again), I've pushed it on several other people, and I've not had a miss
yet. The subject matter is pretty heavy, and this book also uses
several tropes that I personally adore and am therefore incapable of
being objective about, but with those caveats, this gets my highest
possible recommendation.

Some Desperate Glory is a complete story in one novel with a definite
end, although I love these characters so much that I'd happily read
their further adventures, even if those are thematically unnecessary.

Content warnings: Uh, a lot. Genocide, suicide, sexual assault, racism,
sexism, homophobia, misgendering, and torture, and I'm probably
forgetting a few things. Tesh doesn't linger on these long, but most of
them are on-screen. You may have to brace yourself for this one.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-08-20


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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