The il’Drach Empire spans half a galaxy, built on the feet and fists of their Powered hybrid children.
At eight Rohan of Earth learned that he was only half human. By sixteen he was an active superhero, using his inherited powers to fight crime, in mask and spandex. At twenty-two he left his home to fight for the his father’s people, expanding the il’Drach Empire and protecting it from local and interdimensional threats. At thirty-two, exhausted by ten years of ruthless warfare, he retired to Wistful, a vast sentient independent space station, to try to live a normal life.
With a steady job, someone far out of his league to date, and the most cosmopolitan selection of fine dining in the sector, things are looking up.
Then a long dormant wormhole in Wistful’s system is opened by a ship full of refugees, drawing unwanted attention from the Empire. The appearance of the refugees sets off a chain of events that will force Rohan to confront his checkered past and cast doubt on whether he can ever leave behind his violent warrior heritage.
To keep his friends safe, and himself in one piece, Rohan has to face giant insects, body-skipping assassins, vengeful armored aliens, an inquisition of intelligent bears, and a team of his fellow hybrids. The open question is whether tapping into his savage alien powers will end up destroying the peaceful life he has been trying to build.
Wistful Ascending took me by surprise in the best ways. I went in expecting superhero action and witty banter, and while there is plenty of both, the slice-of-life moments and deeper themes are what took this book from a fun read to a truly excellent story.
The author J.C.M. Berne strikes a perfect balance between cheeky humor and introspection into the life of the protagonist Rohan. I have never read any comic books, but the overall feel of the novel Wistful Ascending reminded me of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. There are plenty of humorous moments to lighten the mood but Rohan is also dealing with a lot of personal issues from his past that he is trying to escape but is now forced to confront and deal with. Rohan is half human and half il’Drach, the latter of which is a species of alien that rules a vast galactic empire. One of their most valuable tools in conquest and maintaining this empire is their hybrid children, which possess literally civilization-ending amounts of power. As one of these hybrids, Rohan served for many years as a Lancer in the il’Drach military, conquering worlds and putting down rebellions. Now he wants nothing to do with that and has retired to the independent space station Wistful, where he tows ships to and from the station with his bare hands. But of course, a past like his leaves marks on himself and others, and he learns that he can’t simply run and hide.
I think whatever you are looking for in this book you will find. If you want a fun superhero action story, there is plenty of that here. Rohan, despite wanting to live a quiet life, has many occasions to use his powers, including confrontations with sentient space bears. The mechanics of his powers are also really interesting. A simplistic explanation is there is spiritual power in every living thing in the universe and Rohan can manipulate that energy in himself and other non-sentient things. As a fan of hard magic systems in fantasy I found this very intriguing, and I hope we get to learn more about this in future books in the series and see new ways this power is used. Another aspect I enjoyed is that apparently Rohan is not all that powerful for a Hybrid. But he is a very smart and crafty fighter. So against anything lower on the scale than a Hybrid he outclasses them easily, when taking on stronger opponents he can’t just use his raw strength, he has to outthink them instead, which again adds depth and complexity to his character.
On the other hand, there is plenty of slice-of-life moments in this book as well as Rohan goes about his daily life on the space station. Rohan is looking to leave his old life behind and be as boring as possible, but he is struggling to adapt to living like a normal person. He does start to make friends, and even enters a romantic relationship that was handled very well. One of the highlights of the book for me was the AI Wistful, who runs the space station. She has a dry sense of humor that Rohan can never tell if she is joking with him or not that made me smile many times. I also enjoyed the concept that all larger ships and stations in this universe are run by sentient AIs and are called living ships. They are made this way so that they have an inherent spiritual energy that helps them resist manipulation by people with powers. But is also adds depth to the world because each ship has their own personality, which was a lot of fun to see.
As a last note I also appreciated the small references and nods to Rohan’s Indian heritage on his human mother’s side. I think this exemplifies the attention to detail the author puts into Rohan to flesh out his character and make him more than a stereotypical superhero. I really enjoyed my time reading Wistful Ascending and I am looking forward to continuing this series. I think any reader will find a lot to love in this book whether you are a long-time comics lover or, like me, relatively new to superhero literature.