Reeling from the latest attack by a mysterious enemy, the Quatra Fleet Academy is finally admitting students from every planet in the solar system after centuries of exclusivity. Hotshot pilot Vesper, an ambitious Tridian citizen, dreams of becoming a captain--but when she loses her spot to a brilliant, wisecracking boy from the wrong side of the asteroid belt, it makes her question everything she thought she knew. Growing up on the toxic planet Deva, Cormak will take any chance he can get to escape his dead-end life and join the Academy--even if he has to steal someone's identity to do it. Arran was always considered an outsider on icy Chetire, always dreaming of something more than a life working in the mines. Now an incoming cadet, Arran is looking for a place to belong--he just never thought that place would be in the arms of a Tridian boy. And Orelia is hiding a dark secret--she's infiltrated the Academy to complete a mission, one that threatens the security of everyone there. But if anyone finds out who she really is, it'll be her life on the line. These cadets will have to put their differences aside and become a team if they want to defend their world from a cunning enemy--and they might even fall in love in the process.
The storytelling is split between 4 third-person POVs: Vesper—the overly driven daughter of an emotionally constipated Admiral, Cormak—the hotshot orphaned identity thief (er… borrower-with-permission?), Arran—the painfully naïve underdog, and Orelia—the single-minded spy who’s been sent to destroy the Quatra Fleet Academy. The 4-way split means that readers spend around 90 pages with each character, and a sizable portion of that dedicated to the attempted development of a romance.
The prose is simple and serviceable—effectively conveying scenes without flourish. The overall pacing is leisurely. Most plot-related tension can be found in Cormak’s through line, as he finds a way off-world and spends time dodging discovery. Orelia faces a similar kind of concern, though readers will be conflicted on whether they want to see her found out. The team competitions are almost entirely simulations and don’t really elicit strain or concern for the characters. And the direness of the one potentially threatening situation is quickly quelled via a means that may strike some readers as contrived.
The romantic tensions carry through most of the story, seeming to form the majority focus. But while the three hot-first-kiss scenarios are a sensory extravaganza, the lack of relational depth and connection puts a damper on believability. (Arran at least seems to acknowledge a scarcity of emotional intimacy with his intended partner, but the awareness is quickly smothered under the character’s neediness.) I had a hard time forming much attachment to any of the characters, which made all of their aspirations, romantic or otherwise, difficult to root for.
Note: I would describe this book as ‘light sci-fi.’ We are given no idea of when it is taking place, (apparently distant enough in the future to allow for the colonizing of a different solar system) yet there has seemingly been next to no language development. 'Hooking up' is still called hooking up, and ‘screwed’ is still screwed. The only tailored exclamation I noticed was 'Anteres'...which seemed to be substituting for 'God' or 'Gods'--but there's no explanation given. (It's the name of a particular star in the constellation Scorpius, so I'm guessing that's the one their planets orbit...?) Aside from that, there’s 'Magma boar crap'—which is exactly the curse word substitute you think it is. (Although we are never shown a magma boar, and I remain vaguely curious.) And finally, there’s ‘Edgars’—the derogatory term for settlers. Although how/why an innocuous male name evolved into slang bordering on hate speech is sadly never explained. (Edgars happens to be the name of my favorite bakery, and so I had great difficulty in reconciling my superb cake fantasies with the idea of bigotry. >.> )
The majority of authentic sci-fi/futuristic worldbuilding is centered on Deva—Cormak’s poisonous gas-laden planet of origin, which we’re introduced to at the very beginning but don’t revisit aside from his personal references. (Much of his worldview is colored by his experiences on his barely-habitable home planet, and his regular comparisons actually felt the most organic of all the main characters.)
My biggest qualm?
Those chosen for the Quatra Academy are supposed to be geniuses—the top-scoring phenoms from their respective planets. But unfortunately, their intellect and acumen are far more implied than shown. Readers hoping for an Ender’s Game styled elite military academy will be sorely disappointed. Opulence, frivolity, and interpersonal pseudo-crisis are plentiful, while rules are barely enforced—giving the setting a feel that owes more to any modern high school drama than what this reader would have hoped for from the science fiction genre.
Without giving away any specific plot point, I think readers should be forewarned that this first book in the series does end on a cliffhanger. And those hoping for any satisfaction in the romantic realm will have to read on in the series.