The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei
Yume Kitasei’s debut novel, The Deep Sky, is half a sci-fi mystery aboard a troubled spaceship and half a boarding school story set some years beforehand during the training/selection period for the crew. The sci-fi section moves along at a fast pace while the school segments slow down to delve more into character and also provide backstory so as to better understand motivations and actions in the present. The premise and structure are good ideas, but unfortunately issues with execution, pace, and characterization, as well as a few plot weaknesses detracted from the reading experience.
The Phoenix is a spaceship on a one-way colonizing trip to a new planet , fleeing an Earth ravaged by war, environmental despoilation, extreme weather, and more. Financed by a trillionaire and money from governments who paid for slots on the ship, the Phoenix has a crew of 79 members (women and trans—no cis-men). The journey is to be ten years in hibernation, ten years of awake time during which the crew is artificially inseminated to give birth to one-to-two children for the colony, then ten more years in hibernation.
The crew has been awake for eleven months when someone sets off a bomb on the outer hull which kills several crew members, does some damage, but more importantly knocks the ship off course. So the present-time narrative has two issues: find the saboteur (s) amongst them and find some way to get the ship back on track or else they’ll all die when they run out of supplies. We see all of this via a third-person POV focused on Asuka, the “alternate” member of the crew (the only one without a designated job). Meanwhile, a number of inter-chapters flashback to Asuka signing up for the journey and going through the training and selection process with hundreds of others, some of whom wash out of the program and rest of whom become her present-day shipmates.
The structure is a smart move in theory, offering up several benefits. One is it can heighten tension/suspense as Kitasei can cut away at pivotal points in the present to flashback to the training, leaving the reader hanging (in a good way). I’d say this is perhaps the most successful aspect of the novel. The other potential benefit is it creates a built-in balance between action scenes and quieter moments. That’s not to see the present-day doesn’t have its slower scenes or the flashbacks are utterly devoid of action, but generally, the school scenes focus on character and relationships more intimately while the present-day scenes are far more tense and active. This element I’d put in the “sort-of” or “mostly” works category. The balance is solid, but the flashback scenes were a bit too familiar and mundane, and we probably got too many of them.
Asuka’s characterization is nicely done throughout as we piece together her present-day issues from the flashbacks — her sense of unworthiness, her grief over a younger brother who died, her fraught relationship with her mother, and more. But beyond the main character, the rest of the crew is either completely faceless (we see only a handful really) or pretty thinly characterized, falling more into types than feeling like actual individuals. And they also seemed both too young for their mission (more on that later) and also younger than their ages. Which I can explain away by their ten-year hibernation, so they’re all still in the early 20s or so (I think), but honestly their issues over relationships and break-ups and jealousies felt like they were in early high school if not younger. One plus with regard to characters is their wide-ranging diversity.
The plot moves along quickly in the present-day, but it too feels a little thin. I never quite understood how this crew was chosen — I mean, we see it in process, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me in terms of the mission, the state of the world, or the rich funder and there was no real attempt to explain any of that. The whole mandated breeding thing I admit felt more than a little creepy, and the across-the-board youth crew seemed pretty implausible. Finally, they were a few plot points that didn’t feel fully thought out, and the identity of the saboteur I thought was pretty clear well before the halfway point which not only meant the mystery wasn’t much of a mystery but also meant the characters were painted as implausibly oblivious (or at least, implausible in their lack of paranoia/suspicion even though we see them act that way several times).
The relatively thin characterization and plot together with the characters’ immaturity makes me think that this is a book more suited to a YA audience even if it isn’t marketed as such, as I think they’d be more forgiving of some of the issues I had. Kitasei does write clearly and fluidly throughout, does a nice job as noted with Asuka’s characterization, and while the structure wasn’t entirely successful (mostly a matter of pacing), it was a good choice and was particularly effective in terms of enhancing suspense. All of which I’d say bodes well for a second book.