Musa Books, 2013, 238 pages
A ship has vanished in the dark, in the very outer reaches of Earth's solar system. Alien invaders sweep through the void, destroying outposts and threatening humanity. The truth is known only to a few: We fired first. We fired on aliens whose very appearance and body language sent all humans into a flying rage. All but a few. Now a brilliant, autistic woman from Mars and an alien diplomat seek peace...while some on both sides desire only conflict. Suza McRae and Haniyar must bridge the gap between their species, or risk a war that will destroy everything and everyone in its path.
I wanted to like this book more than I did. It's got all the classic SF elements I like: first contact, multiple alien species, political factions bickering over whether to make war or peace, xeno-linguistics, spaceship battles, an offbeat female protagonist...
Transpecial starts with a bang and an intriguing premise: when humans make first contact with the ky'iin, the appearance of the aliens is so awful that it triggers an immediate fight-or-fight reflex in humans, and they fire on the ky'iin vessel. Unfortunately, the ky'iin have better technology, and soon humans are getting their asses kicked.
This leads to a war throughout the solar system. The leadership of both the humans and the ky'iin actually want to communicate and make peace, but both races have factions that would rather wipe the other species out, leading to a lot of mutinies and double-crosses on both sides.
This is a good set-up. Then the protagonist, Suza McRae is introduced. Suza is an autistic Martian girl ("girl" because at 20-something, her autism makes her still legally a child under Martian law; there is some unnecessary side drama about her smothering, controlling mother), high-functioning enough that they get the bright idea of having her try to communicate with the aliens because... maybe autism makes you immune to the violent response the ky'iin trigger? (Spoiler: it does.) Okay, this seemed kind of iffy, but I'm willing to roll with it.
I was ready to dive into interspecies politics and even put up with the kind of weird "romance" going on between Suza and a ky'iin third-gender diplomat. The mention of not one, but two other alien races, both having some sort of client/partner status with the ky'iin, and then the introduction of dolphins as sapient (and capable of piloting spaceships) started to feel like a few too many ingredients in the story.
Unfortunately, Transpecial is just not written well.
First of all, the ky'iin, despite having three genders and such a horrific appearance that non-autistic humans can't even look at them on video without turning homicidal, are basically Star Trek aliens, which is to say, people in scary alien suits. This was sort of the point of the novel, but it also didn't really ring true.
The other two alien races, when they show up, seem a little more alien, but that's only because there really isn't much dialog with them.
Both humans and aliens behave in impractical and implausible ways. Suza learns to communicate with the ky'iin improbably quickly. And some stuff just didn't make sense, like neither humans or ky'iin being able to talk to each other without Suza once both sides figured out the problem. Or the third alien race that the ky'iin apparently "civilized" (kind of the way Europeans "civilized" the American Indians), but it never occurred to the ky'iin (after they gave these guys ships and technology) that they might... resent them?
Most tellingly, the writing is very simple: a very flat prose style, in chapters of 1-3 pages each.
Jennifer Povey's debut novel was originally published by Musa Publishing, which gained a reputation as little better than an author mill before folding a few years ago, and later editions are self-published on Createspace. Props to the author for getting it out there, but this one needed a little more seasoning (and a lot more editing), which is why traditional publishing is still a thing.
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