Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Ithaka Rising (LJ Cohen)

Need diverse scifi books for diverse readers? Look no further than the YA novel Ithaka Rising by award-winning and best-selling author LJ Cohen. Featuring a feisty lesbian heroine, a multicultural cast spanning three generations and a search and rescue mission involving a handicapped pre-teen, a wounded woman warrior with a prosthetic limb and a crone coding goddess, Ithaka Rising delivers diversity in spades.

Who Should Read This?

I would very highly recommend Ithaka Rising to librarians, teachers and parents wanting to motivate student interest, particularly girls and minorities, in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, occupations of the future and leadership roles. Today’s veterans, especially wounded warriors, who love scifi and space will also enjoy this adventurous read. LGBT teens and adults will appreciate the relationship issues and community situations. Aspiring writers looking for great literature to learn from should grab this book with both hands. For adults and teens, it’s an exciting space opera flavored with Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who and M*A*S*H!

Racially Diverse Characters

Ithaka Rising is Book Two in Cohen’s Halcyone Space series, which began with DERELICT. The series follows the misadventures of a core group of four to five pre-teen through young adult human main characters, including a Hispanic-Asian lesbian couple, two black brothers and a Caucasian guy. No aliens, yet, but I’m waiting.

Star Wars Similarities and Departures

The space exploration series is primarily set aboard the battle fatigued freighter Halcyone and her asteroid-bound base, Daedalus, which is the Siberia of the Commonwealth government. Halcyone is similar to the Millennium Falcon in that repairs are constantly ongoing, nobody else would want her for anything but scrap recycling and her renegade captain has a determined spirit and often finds herself in complex challenges, surrounded by players of varying loyalties, danger, a shoestring budget and a ticking clock, much like Han Solo. The big difference in Halcyone and the Millennium Falcon is her fusion of artificial intelligence, emotion and music, aided and abetted by First Mate Barre. Barre lives, breathes, thinks and communicates in music. He is genuinely gifted, but unappreciated by his career military physician parents, although respected by his younger brother, Jem the resourceful coding genius. Jem exceeds Halcyone Captain Ro Maldonado’s coding talents by light years, which is saying something. Dr. Adiana May makes her entrance in Ithaka Rising as the Obi Wan Kenobi of coding. Her Jedis are, of course, Ro, Barre and Jem.

Excerpt

Ro had no idea how long it had been since her confrontation with Barre when her micro buzzed, pulling her out of her latest battle with Halcyone’s jump drive programming.

Shit. She had never called Nomi. Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.

Blinking through layers of virtual windows, each running a custom diagnostic, it took her a few minutes to locate the small device. By the time she snatched it from where it lay on the main nav console, the call had ended, leaving a high-priority message scrolling across the screen.

The call had been from Commander Mendez. She wasn’t sure if she should be relieved or upset that it hadn’t been Nomi.

Ro had known this was coming. There was only so long she could lean on the station’s resources before Mendez’s gratitude expired. Sighing, she pushed away her guilt before sending a reply. Mendez first. And then try to fix things with Nomi. Her father would have ignored the call and the messages—both the explicit one and the implicit one behind it. Maybe she wasn’t entirely like him after all.

Shift change turned the corridors and the nexus into a traffic jam. Or at least the equivalent on Daedalus. The outpost station had few enough staff that even Ro was able to put names to all the faces she passed on her way to command. What surprised her was how many of them looked at her, smiling and nodding. It was unsettling.

Lieutenant Commander Emma Gutierrez stood at attention at Mendez’s office, her uniform crisp, her sidearm gleaming in its holster, her expression neutral. Older than Mendez by at least a decade, Gutierrez had the look of a lifer and the scars that marked her as having seen hard combat, probably in the war that had downed Halcyone. Part of her left arm and hand had been reconstructed—old battle tech that Gutierrez had never bothered to replace with more natural-looking prosthetics. But there was nothing wrong with how they functioned.

“The commander asked to see me?”

Gutierrez nodded and the door opened. Ro stepped through, feeling the intensity of the lieutenant commander’s gaze, like the laser sight of a gun on her back. The last time Ro had been in this office, Mendez had given her Halcyone.

“Ms. Maldonado. Please sit down.” Mendez came around the front of her desk and waved Ro toward a small table and two chairs in an alcove at the rear of her office.

She studied the commander, wondering what kind of meeting this was to be. So far, it didn’t seem like any kind of hearing or disciplinary action. Then again, Ro was not technically under Mendez’s command. The commander sat and Ro followed her lead. The woman had always seemed stern and distant, but Ro saw the lines of fatigue at the corner of her eyes and the deep furrows across her brow, legacy of the mess that led to an ongoing Commonwealth investigation into her father, the smuggled weapons, and the war they were meant to spark.

The door opened again and Gutierrez entered, carrying a tray with two steaming coffees. Ro frowned, but watched as the old soldier easily set down a cup next to each of them with her bio-electronic hand, not spilling a drop.

“That will be all,” Mendez said. Gutierrez nodded, turned crisply, and left.

Ro waited until the commander picked up her cup before taking a sip of the coffee. It was the real deal—a smooth, dark roast, imported from the Hub at great expense. And served black, just the way she liked it.

“There’s been no word on your father.”

He was out there—Ro had no doubt about that. Alain Maldonado was too smart and too vindictive to be dead. She knew she needed to find him before he came for her.

“There was enough evidence just based on dereliction of duty to strip him of his rank in the engineering guild and his Commonwealth citizenship.”

It was far less than he deserved after what he had done to Micah, what he had threatened to do to her and Barre. Ro focused on the welcome burn of the coffee as she swallowed.

Mendez put down her cup. “They also confiscated his assets.”

Unfortunately, Ro had also expected that. She finished the coffee and carefully placed her cup on the small table, waiting for Mendez’s third and final blow. A freighter without jump capability was space junk. Sure, she could live aboard Halcyone. The water recycling worked, as did the air scrubbers. The ship had enough aduronium to fuel the interstitial engines for a thousand years, or until the base metals disintegrated back into star stuff. But being forced to drift through the sector where Daedalus Station orbited felt like slow suicide.

“As little as Halcyone draws from the station, there is a cost.”

Ro kept her gaze steady, but she couldn’t help the heat that rose to her cheeks. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been expecting this. That’s what drove her to work nearly through all three shifts during the past long weeks, irritating and alienating both Nomi and Barre in the process.

And for nothing. The ship was likely irretrievably broken. And there was a good chance her relationships were, too.

“I appreciate all you’ve done for me, Commander Mendez.” Ro was shocked at how steady her voice was. “I understand. Thank you for your time.” She pushed her chair from the table and stood to leave.

“Sit down.” Mendez’s command filled the room.

Ro sat, the heat spreading out from her cheeks to her whole face.

“You need resources. I need an engineer.”

“Sir?”

“Until this mess with your father is straightened out and Commonwealth Command decides to fill my staffing request, I am short one chief engineer. You have the skills to do the job and a ship that won’t fly.”

“You’re offering me a job?”

“Such as it is. My budget is stretched thin. When they claimed your father’s resources, they also froze his salary. I can manage to continue your intern’s stipend, along with supplies for Halcyone in return for a part-time commitment.”

“But I’m not military.”

“Consider yourself an outside contractor.”

“Oh.”

“I’ve taken the liberty of pushing a standard agreement to your micro. Am I correct in assuming you’d prefer to stay aboard your ship, rather than return to your previously assigned quarters?”

Ro nodded. One of the first things she had done on her return to Daedalus was to salvage anything of value from the small living space she had shared with her father. At least the Commonwealth didn’t get the contents of his workroom. Though if they knew she’d taken his notes and his spare memory cube, they would come knocking. It was encrypted and locked, but Ro knew her father as well as anyone and given enough time, she was going to crack it. And then she was going to go after him.

To find her father, she needed a ship with a jump drive. To fix the ship, she needed to step into her father’s old job. Mendez had assured her she was not her father. She hoped the commander was right. But now she would have even less time to work on Halcyone and to try to repair her damaged relationships.

“Welcome aboard, Acting Chief Engineer Maldonado.”

Ro jerked, unable to quell the involuntary response of looking for him over her shoulder.

Mendez studied her carefully. “You are not to blame for your father’s crimes. And you will not be judged by his actions, but by your own.”

The coffee soured in her stomach. “Thank you, sir.”

Conclusion

What thrills me most about Ithaka Rising is the character diversity on so many levels: age, ethnicity, disability, military (active duty, veteran, wounded warriors), survivalism and sexuality. I especially enjoyed the steamy lesbian shower scene. Of course, what is character diversity without a great story? Ithaka Rising is chock-full of edgy, page-turning, plot-twisting action balanced with humor, compassion and democracy. There’s even Greek poetry, a New Louisiana and gumbo!

Special Note: Ithaka Rising author LJ Cohen is committed to diversity, literacy and reader access. She has donated a signed set of her books to the Ferguson Library.

Grab your copy of Ithaka Rising at Amazon.

Read my Author Interview with LJ Cohen on DERELICT.

About the Reviewer 

Belinda Y. Hughes is the Louisiana lesbian author of Blues in the Night, Living Proof and Confessions of a Red Hot Veggie Lover 2. Her poetry has been published in the Odessa Review, New Day Publications and Long Story Short. She enjoys reading, writing, beading, baking and hiking in the woods with her old dog. Belinda is eager to write in a variety of genres. Follow Belinda on Amazon, Goodreads and Twitter.

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