Review: 'Persephone Station,' By Stina LeichtStina Leicht's new sci-fi novel has a lot of moving parts: Space opera, rough-and-tumble mercenaries, corporate intrigue, alien first contact — and to her credit, she almost pulls it all off.
Persephone Station is many things. It's a samurai story told in shades of horse opera space-western. It's a rough-and-tumble mercs-in-trouble story that tries (really hard) to give almost everyone a redeeming heart of gold. It's an overclocked action novel with a lot of pudge in the middle and a political novel wearing the shirt and pants of an old-fashioned pew-pew shoot-em-up. There are dogfights and bar fights, battle mechs and assassins. It has first contact, rogue AI, shapeshifting aliens, a dropship named Kurosawa, space marines, murder bears and an ambush gambit straight-up lifted from the Ewok playbook.
And also, the cast is almost entirely female, BIPOC, nonbinary and/or LGBTQ, almost entirely badass ex-soldiers turned mercenaries trying to make their modest way on a backwater planet where everything from the bugs to the weather can kill you, and almost entirely the best part of a book that has a lot of best parts, but still somehow doesn't manage to come together into a greater-than-the-sum-of whole.
And if all of that seems like a lot, you're right. It absolutely is. Because Stina Leicht is trying to do a lot with Persephone Station. She's trying to do a book that feels both weighty and light, both serious and fun, and for long stretches, she pulls off what is a very difficult balancing act. And while success would've been masterful, given the weight of all the different stories she's carrying, the falls and failures seem almost inevitable.
At its most elemental, Persephone Station is about two old friends who have become even older enemies, fighting for control of a planet and the technologies being developed there by a hidden group of natives called the Emissaries. A century ago, these Emissaries rescued two young people — Rosie and Vissia — from a disastrous attempt at colonization by religious space missionaries. In doing so, they also gifted the two of them with prolonged life. Rosie took their gift and made a promise to protect the Emissaries (which Rosie felt would be best accomplished by becoming a crime boss and small-business owner, opening a bar for mercenaries and tourists in the planet's only human city). Vissia became head of a large corporation which, for decades, exploited the Emissaries in secret, until Vissia finally decides it is time to simply wipe them out.
Rosie and Vissia move predominantly inPersephone's background, though — using various pawns and contractors to do their dirty work. Most notable among them is Angel de la Reza, a former United Republic of Worlds marine trained as a fighter in an all-girls martial arts school, employed now as a mercenary and captain of a rag-tag gang of other women mercenaries who all work for Rosie. At her disposal, Vissia has assault ships, power armor, mech suits and her corporate armies — all of which she uses in an attempt to extort the secret to life extension from the Emissaries.
Persephone begins in action — a negotiation that ends in genocide, a failed break-in, a fancy-dress assassination that goes all wrong. It establishes a tempo of quick preparations, big bangs, more preparation, more bangs. Leicht has a talent for balancing light character moments with roaring action that's both admirable and initially well-deployed, making for a choppy narrative that offers her lots of little nooks where she can cram in bits of backgrounding and worldbuilding. You understand who Angel is after waking with her and watching her while she scraps with an intruder in her cheap apartment, walking with her through the streets of Brynner and going to visit Monk's, Rosie's bar. In turn, we meet her crew — a detail here, a telling quip there.
But after the first quarter, Leicht and Persephone just ... lose some steam. A secondary narrative is offered — one about an AI named Kennedy Liu who was endowed with human empathy, hiding out in Brynner and looking for something while being hunted by a different corporation from which she has escaped. Kennedy's path collides with Angel's, with Rosie's and, for too many pages, there's an uncertainty. A sense of too many things being said, too little happening, and too much furniture being moved around in the wings. Leicht dumps a lot of background here — character backstories, corporate info, the histories of Rosie and Vissia.
And I get it. This stuff has to go somewhere. It's not fluff (well, not most of it), and much of it becomes important later. But two things go wrong. First, after the thumping shocks of the opening, the middlegame happens in a kind of vacuum without propulsion and without stakes. You know all the main characters will survive this mid-point action because all of their plotlines have become so tangled that any resolution requires them all to make it to the end. Second, that neatly measured tempo established in the front of the book simply vanishes for a long, muddling stretch and Persephone has trouble finding its footing again until its back quarter when everyone goes for their guns again and consequences are once more imposed.
Here's the thing, though: Most of this is okay. Most of it — even the squishy middle bit — is buoyed along by Leicht's talent for making characters you want to hang with just a little bit longer. Small details (sharing morning coffee, arguments over guns and money and boyfriends and girlfriends) add up and make Angel and her team feel, if not true, then at least the kind of goofy, fallible, cybernetically-augmented psychopaths that you want to jump around with. You feel for the Emissaries (even when Leicht leans hard into their techno-pacifism and needy isolation), for Rosie, even Vissia (a little). The tribulations of empathic artificial intelligences motoring around in human bodies are interesting for a while.
But of all the parts that make up Persephone Station — amid all the miniguns, explosions and robots — it's the four people in the center of it all that stitch it together.
Even in the moments when it feels like it's coming apart at the seams.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphiamagazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.