Orphans Adan Testa and Bo Shen are best friends living under the yoke of the Bolvar Union, a restrictive society that will soon drag them into five years of mandatory military service. To escape, they hatch a plan to get over the wall that surrounds the city and out into the wild landscape of the planet Neska. But things don’t go according to plan…
When they are caught by the authorities, they unexpectedly find themselves rescued by the imposing Commander Sala who drafts them into the military early. It becomes clear that Sala knows more about Adan than she’s revealing. But it’s when Adan accidentally revives some old colony artifacts, advanced technology long thought to be inoperable, that the real mystery starts to take shape. Why is Adan the only person on the planet who can make these ancient machines work?
Owen Lach’s debut YA sci-fi novel, Founder’s Mercy, feels like a well-oiled machine. There are a lot of moving parts here as Lach builds a new world for us. From the political machinations of the Bolvar Union and Motari rebels, Adan and Bo’s plans and their expanding circle of relationships, to the history lessons of the colony’s early days (the ‘founders’ of the title). There are lies and deceits mixed with familial bonds and budding romances. Not to mention the dual mysteries at the heart of the novel. How did a scientifically advanced, space faring group of settlers lose their technology and skills to become an agrarian society? And why is Adan the only one who can turn things around? But each of these pieces moves in harmony in this well-plotted tale.
There are the hallmarks of YA sci-fi, but each is twisted into a more morally complex space. Instead of an “oppressive regime” we have a pseudo-communist society that provides for its citizens that seem like a modern utopian state (Adan is poor but has always been fed, clothed and housed, and his sexuality is never an issue). Even Commander Sala, the book’s ‘villain’ clearly has reasons for her actions beyond being evil. The characters feel well-rounded and, well, messy at times. Allegiances shift, people change their minds or have levels of motivation that at times conflict with each other. Good people do bad things. Bad people do good. There is a level of complexity and humanity here that’s sadly sometimes lacking in queer YA fiction.
Adan reads like a precocious sixteen-year-old, filled with unearned confidence mixed with immature emotional reactions. On the cusp of adulthood, he’s forced into making life or death decisions, trying to be a moral person in horrible situations. It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by a series of slightly older boys who catch his eye, from his aggressive Squad Leader Garun, to the Motari rebel Rune, even his best friend Bo.
While reading Founder’s Mercy I was reminded of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking novels. The worldbuilding feels effortlessly complex and real. There is an ever-unfolding mystery in the book that goes deeper and deeper, but it’s clear that Lach has the resolution planned out (*reviewer throws a shady look at the Maze Runner series*). There is confidence in the storytelling. Characters may be working together, but each has their own goals in mind and I can smell some betrayals coming down the line in future sequels. And while the villains may be evil, their goals may not be as cartoonishly bad as we think.
There is a queer sensibility that runs through the book, set in a world that is queer at its core. It was only after I finished Founder’s Mercy that it clicked with me that beyond things like people introducing themselves with their pronouns, or sexuality being a non-issue, most of the people in power are women (on both sides of the political divide), there are men who are compassionate, but firm (on both sides of the fight), even an AI speaks with a non-gendered voice. These weren’t added to drive home any kind of agenda, the book was naturally modeling equality without any judgement.
I’d have happily read a full-bodied queer sci-fi novel twice this length, that’s how engaged I was with Adan’s story and the world Lach has created; give me a Phillip Pullman-sized doorstop of a book! Lach’s prose is smooth, expertly weaving exposition and character through the action. The last chapter serves as a gentle reminder of all the questions left unanswered, driving us forward into the next book. This is an unpretentiously accomplished debut and a cracking, fun read.
By Chad Armstrong
Founder’s Mercy: The Neskan Chronicles Book One by Owen Lach is published on March 22 2022 from Jetspace Studio. Pre-order now online or from your local independent bookstore.
Thanks to Netgalley for an advance review copy.