Friday, July 25, 2014

New Voices: Queen & Commander by Janine A. Southard

Queen & Commander, by Janine A. Southard
Published: Self-published, 2013
Series: Book 1 of the Hive Queen Saga
Awards Won:  Ippy Award (Silver Medal for Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror E-book)

“The Welsh-colonized world of Rhiannon’s home has a strict career tracking system, designed to direct each person to their optimal future.  Unfortunately, Rhiannon knows her personality and intelligence will mark her as a future "Perceiver", when what she really wants is to be one of the elite “Queens”.

The “Hive” system organizes the best and brightest men into small teams to be overseen by a strong, charismatic woman, their Queen.  Rhiannon manages to finagle her way into her chosen career path, but then her friends draw her into a reckless scheme. Before long, she’s recruited an unusual hive, dropped out of high school, and taken over running an old spaceship, Ceridwen’s Cauldron!” ~Allie

Janine Southard kindly gifted me a copy of this novel, as well as the recently published second novel of the series, Hive & Heist, for review consideration.  Southard has worked in fiction and marketing writing and editing, and Queen & Commander is her first science fiction novel.  You can read the first two chapters on her website.

This is the first self-published novel I’ve reviewed on my blog, mostly because I have still not really figured out how to navigate the market.  As far as I can tell so far, the Ippy Awards seem like a good starting point for checking out self-published fiction. 

Queen & Commander targets a young adult audience, and I expect that it would work well down to early middle school age.  The prose was simple, but functional, and the characters seemed like a good representation the mental and emotional state of teenagers. Even with the far-future setting, some events even echoed my memories from high school years, such as the scene where a store clerk refused to acknowledge one of the teens as a legitimate customer.  However, I also liked that the main characters’ perspectives did not seem to be shown as unquestionably accurate. For instance, Rhiannon was convinced she ‘outsmarted’ the test.  From my perspective, I suspected that the adults were not tricked, but rather chose to allow her to attempt her desired career.  They even signed her up for counseling, to help her adapt to a career that wasn’t perfectly suited to her personality. I also really enjoyed the imperfections of the characters, such that they were able to make believable and serious mistakes. 

Some of the most noticeable of these mistakes were Rhiannon’s attempts to manage her Hive. Rhiannon’s team includes her shy best friend Gwyn, Gwyn’s possessive boyfriend Victor, her classmates Luciano and Gavin, and her one unexpected recruit, Alan. I have a lot of experience with managing small groups, and I appreciated how clearly the story communicated the group’s dynamics, as well as what each of them needed from their leader. The perspective shifted between the characters, allowing the reader to get a good grasp on the distinct personalities of each character and the ways they related to one another. I am looking forward to seeing how their group develops in future books, and how Rhiannon cultivates her leadership style.

I am also hoping that the next book will contain more information about the interesting world that Rhiannon and her friends inhabit. While the most plot-relevant details were introduced, I felt like there wasn’t quite enough background to set the story firmly in context. For instance, the Welsh are the dominant space-faring culture, but there is, as yet, no future-history to explain how the current situation came about. Also, while the story established the concrete rules of the Hive system, it didn’t really explain why the system existed in the first place. I was also baffled about the purpose behind the strict gender roles (women cannot be in a Hive, men can’t be a Queen), given that Hives are defined by loyalty and common purpose, not romantic attraction. The lack of context also left me uncertain about how to interpret the teenager’s scheme.  It seemed to me like their spaceship gig was the equivalent of dropping out of high school and getting a job—maybe unexpected for a University-tracked student, but not unprecedented.

Queen & Commander is clearly intended as an introduction for a series, and I felt like the main purpose of the story was to set up Rhiannon and her friends for future adventures.  However, the plot moved quickly, there was plenty of excitement in their spaceship’s maiden voyage. The latter part of the book began to set up part of what I expect will eventually be the main conflict of the series, and the story ended on a cliffhanger.  I enjoyed getting to know the crew of Ceridwen’s Cauldron, and I am looking forward to seeing how things develop in Hive & Heist!

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