[Review] Failure to Communicate by Kaia Sønderby

As one of the only remaining autistics in the universe, Xandri Corelel has faced a lot of hardship, and she’s earned her place as the head of Xeno-Liaisons aboard the first contact ship Carpathia. But her skill at negotiating with alien species is about to be put to the ultimate test.

The Anmerilli, a notoriously reticent and xenophobic people, have invented a powerful weapon that will irrevocably change the face of space combat. Now the Starsystems Alliance has called in Xandri and the crew of the Carpathia to mediate. The Alliance won’t risk the weapon falling into enemy hands, and if Xandri can’t bring the Anmerilli into the fold, the consequences will be dire.

Amidst sabotage, assassination attempts, and rampant cronyism, Xandri struggles to convince the doubtful and ornery Anmerilli. Worse, she’s beginning to suspect that not everyone on her side is really working to make the alliance a success. As tensions rise and tempers threaten to boil over, Xandri must focus all her energy into understanding the one species that has always been beyond her: her own.

Genre(s): Adult, Sci-fi
Series: Xandri Corelel #1
Published by Going to Mars on Feb 14, 2017
[ Add it on Goodreads ]

Representation: (click to show)

autistic bi/pan MC with synesthesia, polyam bi/pan Black major character, Asian major character, bipolar major character, F/F relationships, (bi/pan) F/M relationships, diverse major & minor characters

Content warnings: (click to show)

internalized & external ableism, past (physical, emotional & sexual) child abuse, xenophobic slurs (against fictional race), recreational hunting, animal abuse, animal death (shot in self-defense), major character death, minor gore, blood, non-graphic violence

That’s space for you, I thought, as I swung myself into the grav-tube. It was so huge, space, and yet when you were me, it was still too crowded.

Since this book is on most #ownvoices autistic rep lists that I’ve seen, I thought it might be a good choice for Autism Acceptance Month. (Though it’s worth noting the relative lack of said rep rather limits said lists, unfortunately.)

In any case, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

For me, the characters are far and away the stars of the story. Pun totally intended. Our heroine Xandri is absolutely likable with her kind heart, fierce loyalty, and indefatigable work ethic; being autistic is significant to her identity, but it doesn’t define her as a person or as a Xeno-Liaison. Nor does being queer — Xandri expresses attraction to both male and female characters as well as openness to a polyamorous relationship, though romance and sexual tension aren’t a major focus throughout.

I could honestly write a whole review just about the cast. From handsome and clever Diver in R&D to gorgeous and brilliant Kiri in Signals (i.e., she’s a hacker) to strict but fair Captain Chui Shan Fung to Xandri’s two spoiled but affectionate pet parrots to all the non-human crewmates and associates they encounter … there’s such a diversity of backgrounds, personalities, and interests that really brings the narrative to life.

And the worldbuilding is fantastic as well. We get to learn about intergalactic travel and diplomatic relations in addition to spending time on specific non-Earth planets; there’s plenty of room for this fictional universe to expand, yet at the same time I could be happy reading a few more books set in the places we’ve already begun to explore.

There’s enough science so that we can marvel at the characters’ intelligence, but it’s also explained well enough that the average reader will be able to keep up. Which is no small feat, considering that

Explain it to Your Audience Like They’re Five 101 wasn’t a class most scientists or engineers ever took.

I love a good space drama, and this one strikes a solid balance between fate-of-the-known-universe high stakes and the concerns of individuals. The pacing is good too, keeping the story moving along without overwhelming the reader with excessive information or action … though I felt that some of the plot developments were too strongly foreshadowed and ended up reading as too tropey when they happened.

My biggest criticism is a purely subjective one: I didn’t totally get on with Sønderby’s writing style. There’s a lot more internal dialogue than I would’ve liked, and several lines that I thought were trying a bit too hard to be funny.

Still, considering all the things this book does right, it’s a relatively minor concern. This is one of those books that I genuinely think deserves to be on more people’s radar than it is — at present it has just 170 ratings and 57 reviews on Goodreads — so if you think it sounds even remotely interesting, I hope you’ll add it to your TBR!

4 stars

Conversion: 10.8 / 15 = 4 stars

Prose: 4 / 10
Characters & Relationships: 8 / 10
Emotional Impact: 7 / 10
Development/Flow: 6 / 10
Setting: 9 / 10

Diversity & Social Themes: 5 / 5
Intellectual Engagement: N/A
Originality/Trope Execution: 3 / 5
Rereadability: 4 / 5
Memorability:
 4 / 5

5 thoughts on “[Review] Failure to Communicate by Kaia Sønderby

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