In my review of Linden Lewis’s The First Sister, I had high hopes for the sequel. The Second Rebel exceeds those hopes and goes straight for the heart — which it proceeds to devastate. Be prepared: A sprawling, queer space opera which balances high energy, visually slick action scenes against complex political intrigues and nuanced character relationships, The Second Rebel is as engrossing as it is because it’s full of characters passionately invested in something.
The big three factions are the Icarii, who gene-assist themselves into perfection, whose quicksilver duelists are connected by neural implant; the Geans, whose oldest law is “may no machine be set above a human;” the Asters, a people created by genetic tinkering, treated monstrously by all — but especially by Val Akira Labs. The Second Rebel adds the Synthetics, sentient machines who left our solar system centuries ago, but not before forming a perimeter humans aren’t permitted to travel beyond, and the outlaws, allies to the Asters who live in the gray space before the perimeter.
The Second Rebel is told in four viewpoints. Hiro, who’s sent to the outlaw station Autarkeia with instructions to find the mysterious person, possibly a Synthetic agent, who’s been poking into outlaw business. Meanwhile, Hiro’s former partner Lito is on a mission with his new partner Ofiera: Free a dangerous Icarii military asset called the Harbinger (who’s actually Ofiera’s Aster husband, kept, like her, in centuries of cryo-sleep and only let out to do terrible deeds). Then there’s Astrid, then-nameless protagonist of book one, now the First Sister of Ceres and a new player in the cutthroat politics of her Sisterhood. Finally, there’s Lito’s sister Luce: a talented artist whose life changes when she agrees to help the Aster rebels and is forced to go on the run.
This is a lot of story, but in Linden Lewis’s capable hands, it feels effortless. Lewis is excellent at momentum and displays real mastery in the cutaway, knowing exactly when to leave one viewpoint for another. Because character actions in one narrative thread often have a direct effect on characters in another, tossing the narrative from one viewpoint to the next makes for a particularly edge-of-your-seat, wide-awake-past-midnight just-one-more-chapter reading experience. You one know things are getting bad for characters before they figure it out; just as often you’ll be taken completely by surprise when the story zigs instead of zags, and left desperate to know what happens next.
Although our protagonists are on the side of justice, they don’t necessarily want the same end or agree on how to get there. They’re angry. They’re damaged. They’re faced with difficult choices. The interaction of diplomacy, justice, class, prejudice, and war is complex; the Second Rebel doesn’t shy away from that. “I’m just … So angry. Sometimes anger is all you have left,” says one character. Another: “When someone’s been a soldier their whole life, it’s impossible to put those instincts aside.”
The Second Rebel does what you want a sequel to do. Here the universe becomes more expansive, more lived-in, thoroughly revealed and deeply mysterious. We visit locations that feel like characters in their own right. We get to see Vesta, where the Aster Elders live and more interplay between Hiro and his siblings — and Luce, as a new narrative voice, is a delight, bringing a welcome civilian perspective. The science, and possibilities of a cold war where genetics can be mutated and neural plants can be damaged or controlled, is fascinating. Action scenes feel high-stakes, roughly poetic, clever; they’re the kind you move or flinch in sympathy with. With every question answered, two more appear. Everything’s bigger, more epic, and our protagonists and their allies are hopelessly tangled up in high stakes and consequences of their actions. Characters get chances to be badasses at what they’re good at and they get to fail and be vulnerable. They get to forge connections with each other and those connections are dynamic. The Second Rebel is full of love as a driving force: romantic, platonic, familial, but its beating heart is a deep and abiding friendship — and I thoroughly believe the world needs more novels where friendship is given top billing.
It’s worth noting one could probably start with the Second Rebel and be just fine. I had so much fun reading this, although “oof” and “!!!!” appear in my notes more than once. I reveled in the final act even as it thoroughly undid me. I’m ready for more of this tender, difficult, glorious, sprawling, larger-than-life space epic. The Second Rebel burns brightly; I can’t wait to have a chance to turn to the next page.
Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.