Bluebird is science fiction that includes the following: a female protagonist, two love stories of which one is f/f and one f/m, a spaceship, smuggling, a bar fight, political intrigue, badass librarians, secret identities, found and biological family, rebellion, a heist, major angst, chase scenes, and jewelry. I could not one-click this thing fast enough, and presumably most of you will not actually read this review because you have also one-clicked and are already reading the book.
For the, I don’t know, maybe two of you that remain, here’s the basic plot. A hefty chunk of the universe is ruled by three factions: Pyrite, Ascetic, and Ossuary. These factions have, among other things, colonized the homelands of the Kashrini people. Rig, a Kashrini, was recruited by Pyrite to help them develop weapons, which she did so very well that now she is on the run, refusing to give the plans for the weapon to any of the factions. Rig is currently a smuggler who rescues refugees and who steals Kashrini art and other valuables from the colonizers who stole it in the first place.
Rig gets into trouble when the Pyrite faction holds Rig’s twin sister, Daara, hostage until Rig returns the plans for the weapon. Luckily Rig finds herself with an unexpected passenger, Ginka, who has an almost supernatural skill at fighting. As the book progresses, we learn more about Rig, not to mention Ginka, whose mysterious back story is detailed and traumatic (there is no sexual assault, thank goodness). We also learn about Rig and Ginka’s respective romances.
This was a fun, exciting book with non-stop action and a powerful anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist message. The action takes many forms – there’s a heist, a motorbike chase, spaceships chasing each other, the above-mentioned bar fight – so if you like action, you’ll like the book, which has the kinetic appeal of the Indiana Jones movies but with a revolutionary heart. Picture the main characters chasing Indiana Jones down, reclaiming the treasure he stole, kicking his ass, and absconding with his hat, and you’ll get the picture. Meanwhile there’s heavier content in Rig’s desperation to save her sister and in Ginka’s backstory, adding some emotional weight and higher stakes to events.
My main problem with the book was that all the things that made me care about the characters were kept secret until late in the story. I get the concept of a mysterious backstory, but Ginka’s backstory was revealed in such tiny increments that she was a pretty blank slate most of the time. She was so good at concealing her personality that she basically didn’t have any until the book was almost over.
Because the characters lack depth for most of the story, it’s basically a big MacGuffin chase. Alfred Hitchock described the MacGuffin as “The thing that the characters on screen worry about, but the audience don’t care…in crook stories it is almost always the necklace, and in spy stories it is almost always the papers.”
The Mandalorian series is an example of an exceptionally well done story that uses a MacGuffin. Because the MacGuffin is Grogu, who is fucking adorable, and because the series spends time building the character of the Mandalorian and allowing him an endearing character arc, we care passionately not only about the people who want the MacGuffin (the Mandalorian, who spends all of his time either trying to find it or trying to protect it) and the MacGuffin itself. So, the set pieces are fun and exciting, but also emotional.
In Bluebird, we have a lot of action and conversations around finding stuff. Rig wants to find Daara, Pyrite wants to find the schematics, Ginka’s previous bosses want Ginka, etc. Sometimes an extra MacGuffin gets thrown in and then discarded, as when, in mid-heist, Rig decides to steal a Kashrini necklace in addition to accomplishing the mission she is actually there for and finally changes her mind. The story is written well enough to be fun in a ‘B-movie’ kind of a way, but that crucial element of passionate emotional investment in the characters and their motivations was missing for me.
The love stories have the same problem – two great love stories but doled out in teensy bits and pieces. If more of the details of the emotional connections had been revealed earlier, I would have been so much more interested and invested in the characters and the action. Without caring about the characters, the action felt empty, and a lot of those high stakes weren’t apparent right away.
One of the more interesting aspects to the book is how it deals with trauma and oppression. All of the characters are living under totalitarian governments, with varying levels of privilege. There’s a lot of discussion about who has privilege and why, and whether they will fight to keep it or choose another option.
There are also a lot of questions about identity – who gives you a name, what that means, and what it means to choose a name for yourself. All of the characters address these choices in different but plausible ways. For example, I liked that wearing a headscarf is a tradition of the Kashrini people, drawing from more diverse Earth/human cultural sources than Western ones. Cultural identity is also a big part of the book, especially for Rig. These are questions that are terribly relevant today and they provide a lot of gravitas that help anchor all those chase scenes.
Overall, I did enjoy the characters, the love stories, the action, the humor (Rig does excellent snark) and the anti-colonialism. However, I had a hard time keeping my focus on it and kept drifting off to other things. If I had known some key things about the characters earlier in the book, it would have been amazing. Instead, it’s pretty OK. Considering that this is a science fiction action story in which almost all of the characters are women, I’m guessing “pretty OK” will do it for most readers who, like me, enjoy anti-colonialist, feminist science fiction.