Sci-fi Novel Review: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

There were a pair of novels in 2023 with eerily similar—and discouraging—hype cycles. Both Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh and Witch King by Martha Wells were hailed as the next big thing, with as much pre-release buzz as anything I saw last year, and then completely fell off a cliff post-release, with a few dedicated fans amidst a sea of mixed reviews. Unlike Witch King, I didn’t have an ARC of Some Desperate Glory, and the mixed reviews scared me off–at least until it became a Hugo finalist and I decided it was time to try it for myself. And while I understand it not being someone’s book of the year, I think the mixed reviews undersold an excellent novel. 

Some Desperate Glory opens in a small human outpost, scratching out an existence far from galactic civilization and spending all of their energy training up children to continue the fight against an alien alliance that decades earlier had destroyed Earth and its billions of human inhabitants. Kyr has grown up knowing nothing but this world, raised to hate the aliens that destroyed her people, to follow the every word of her military leader, and to despise any activity not centered on making the human resistance the strongest it could be. But when events force her to question her upbringing for the first time, it sets her on a path that could alter the course of not just her own corner of civilization, but the whole alliance that exists outside her small world. 

I’d read Tesh once before, when the cozy-adjacent, romantic Silver in the Wood hit the Hugo shortlist, so I expected her prose would be a real strength, and Some Desperate Glory easily delivers on that front. It isn’t going for atmosphere in the same way as Silver in the Wood, but it sets the scenes well and is immensely readable. But the real star of the show here is the characterization. Kyr manages to be fascinating from the get-go despite being deeply unlikable to almost everyone around her. And the character arc as she begins to question what she’s been taught and shift her values accordingly is a masterful journey that is truly the heart of the novel. There are certainly plot elements that speed the transition in a way that could never happen in the real world, but even so, Kyr’s arc is remarkably grounded. Her progression is logical and non-linear, with fits and starts and recurring questions and doubts, and the continuity in certain aspects of her character—even unpleasant ones, like her intense “my way or the highway” tendencies—make for a story that feels true to life even amidst sci-fi shenanigans. This book is truly worth a read just for the main character arc. 

The plot isn’t quite so flawless, but it’s still wildly entertaining and makes for an enjoyable read. I won’t say too much for fear of spoiling the midway climax, but it keeps a brisk pace that engages the reader without ever feeling like it gives short-shrift to the character development. Each of the five sections has a thrilling climax that fundamentally changes major story elements, so the reader is never far from real excitement. 

But one element that often rings false—and this is the basis of almost every criticism I have—is how often the narrative takes an easy way out. It feels odd to accuse a book prominently featuring the destruction of an entire civilization of letting the characters off too easily, but there are enough difficult and dangerous decisions that lead to such little lasting harm that those dilemmas lose some weight over the course of the book. Throw in one literal deus ex machina and plenty of unexplored depths in a secondary setting where some humans live comfortably under the rule of the people who destroyed most of their race, and the complaint is consistent enough to negatively adjust my delighted reaction fueled by the initial post-book high. There are simply too many moments that don’t feel quite as heavy as they’re meant to be. Crucially, however, there’s never a moment where it feels like the main thrust of the story relies on this softening of consequences. That might’ve been a deal-breaker. But instead, even as I adjust my rating down, I’m still keeping it very high. 

Overall, while there are times when Some Desperate Glory lacks the complexity that it feels like such a story ought to have, there’s still plenty more going for it than going against it. It delivers a thrilling plot with immersive storytelling and a tremendous main character arc, featuring a fascinating—if not entirely likable—lead whose journey feels true to life even in the midst of the most extreme speculative plots. While I understand some of the criticism, the tepid reactions following the book’s release significantly undersell its quality. 

Recommended if you like: complicated main characters, space opera. 

Can I use it for BingoIt’s hard mode for Space Opera, but it also fits Under the Surface, Reference Materials, and Book Club. 

Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads. 

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