Joyce Chng, Starfang, Fox Spirit Books,
"Werewolves in space!" is the tagline of this trilogy of novellas. Now, the word "werewolves" usually has me running very fast in the opposite direction, but in my never ending quest for space operas, I gave it a try.
Francesca Min Yue is the captain of the starship Starfang. Her parents, the leaders of a powerful werewolves clan, have asked her to kill Yeung Leung, from a rival clan. Her obedience to her elders and hierarchy will be put to the test as she will face battles in space, but also battles of her own against PTSD, or against prejudices and traditions.
I have issues with the concept of werewolves. Too often, to me, it leads to a highly hierarchical society and with a strong hint of the idea of purity of the race, two things I'm really not keen on. Happily, Starfang doesn't swipe these issues aside.
The strong hierarchy sense in the series was something that I felt frustrating at times, particularly in the beginning. It was entirely cohesive with the world building: not only this was a werewolves pack, but it was also a Confucian society. But I found interesting how Francesca went from blind obedience to some kind of rebellion until she finds her peace and her place in a world she has subtly changed.
I really appreciated that Chng also tried to deal with the idea of purity by introducing a mixed race character. I was less convinced by some aspects, particularly those about disability.
Francesca is an interesting character, but I think that it only really shows when reading the complete trilogy. Rise of the Clan establishes a few conflicts, but they really come into their own in the following volumes. It is in the facing of these external or internal conflicts that Francesca really becomes a fascinating character. She almost reaches Byronian heights when it comes to being a tormented figure: love and lust, honour and dishonour, fear and courage, the sense of self... All these are questions she will have to solve.
I was less keen in Yeung Leung, her nemesis, who remains distant. In a sense, he's almost as much an abstraction than the society rules Francesca struggles against.
The worldbuilding is extremely strong. Chng takes time away from battles and mind games to show us life on a space station, or life in a werewolf clan, food and rituals. It gives a real depth to Starfang, which coalesces very nicely when, by the end of the last volume, people gather: their interactions, the decisions being made, all make sense thanks to this great background Chng has given us early on.
The writing in the first volume is efficient and fits a chase-and-revenge tale. But from the second volume, Chng's writing really soars and becomes, at times, truly beautiful, particularly when drawing these intimate worldbuilding moments.
I also appreciated that her depictions of the aliens both gave the sense of their alieness but also gave us things we could relate to. It's a difficult balancing act, and she succeeded very effectively.
Starfang really comes into its own when you have read all three volumes. Considering these are three novellas which are often action packed, this isn't really time consuming! It's more than werewolves in space: it's a coming-of-age story, in a complex world held by traditions, feuds and prejudices, and that reminds us that you need it to shake things up regularly to remain alive, as a person and as a society.
The writer's website.
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I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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