“It’s better to find your own trouble than to have trouble come find you.”
Misery Nomaki (she/they) is a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered orphan nobody from a nowhere mining planet. She possesses the rare ability to manipulate holystone, a skill exclusive to the saints of the Larex Forge’s holy order on the one hand and the dangerous, shunned voidmad on the other. Misery is convinced they are one of the latter, and yet both circumstances and a mysterious voice calling itself an angel posit Misery as the highest of saints—the Ninth Messiah, Last Saviour of the Faithful. Thus named, Misery is thrown into a galaxy-wide political conflict between the Faithful and the voidmad Heretics, working with a ragtag team of outcasts to command the fighter craft known as seraphs, all while figuring out if she is truly blessed by the divine—or if a more sinister force is at work. Meanwhile, various factions seek to leverage Misery’s powers and platform for their own purposes.
Billed as a queer Joan of Arc in space, Neon Yang’s aptly named debut novel The Genesis of Misery is a bold, startling, and ambitious start to a planned trilogy. In following the making of the Ninth Messiah Misery Nomaki—complete with celestial visions, fighter archangel robots, and the siren call of prophecy—the book addresses themes of faith, queerness, fanaticism, morality, and the nature of truth in a complex and well-rendered interstellar world. It is also, at its heart, about the thrill of mecha—a genre that heavily features mechanical innovation, especially giant fighter robots, popular in Japanese anime and manga. The novel is at once a departure from the more earthly and explicitly Southeast Asian aesthetics of Yang’s multi award-nominated science fantasy novellas in the Tensorate series, and yet retains their signature lush prose, innovative use of form, and exploration of science meets magic.
Refreshingly, the book features a vast range of queer and diverse characters from the highest to lowest parts of imperial and military society. It incorporates pronouns into all character introductions as a matter of fact: Misery is alternately referred to with she/her and they/them pronouns, and this changes again when they meld with their archangel mech:
“This is a homecoming: from the stars we are born, to the stars we return. Zie is archangel and the archangel is zie.”
The pronoun use was a creative way to provide additional character detail, if somewhat clunky on a line level. The inclusion of neo-pronouns and incorporation of specific pronouns for the mechs was a lovely and effective touch for scenes with multiple characters and works to underline the totality of Misery’s connection with the holystone when melding with the archangel mech. The practice is presented as the norm, but Misery has a brief conversation about pronoun use with another character that may resonate well with queer and gender non-conforming readers.
The main narrative focus is an exploration and inversion of the messiah or chosen one trope, a fascinating push-and-pull in which Misery at first fakes her prophesized abilities and then has to face the consequences when she—shocking herself—lives up to the messiah’s promised power. Early on, it is established that Misery has no true belief in her messianic calling and is only faking her way through to survive, yet multiple moments in which her abilities manifest, her compatibility with the sleeping archangel mech is made plain, and voices—or delusions—call her to her purpose, convince her to reconsider. Her journey is a compelling one, showing what the mantle of saviour can do to an individual, how it warps Misery’s sense of self and plants the seeds of a god complex.
As a child of a backwater planet, Misery’s POV is limited by their relative youth and political inexperience, leaving them ripe for manipulation. Their stubbornness and hubris, access to sensitive information, and personal conflicts make them a dangerous prospect since they wield the biggest and most formidable fighter mech that the Faithful has. Thematic explorations of violence versus pacifism—the echo chamber of propaganda, righteous fanaticism, the consequences of religious dogmatism, and the nature of truth—are filtered via an unreliable narrator as they develop their own stance on the matter.
… the molten moments of these conflicts are perfect places to act. When no one knows what is going on, the loudest voices always win.
Formally, the book is quirky and experimental. It is framed as a story within a story, whereby an unnamed character narrates to another the story of Misery Nomaki in interludes between chapters written from the messiah’s point of view. On a line level, the narrative is stylistically adventurous, sometimes diverging into bullet points for action sequences and naming military units after banquets, their tactical read-outs referred to as “a buffet of data” and their deployments as “four courses of thirty-two dishes, each with four servings.” Nevertheless, the interludes grow somewhat repetitive, as the storytelling narrator does not always offer a fresh perspective different from what could be gleaned in Misery’s chapters. At times, they also came across as didactic, with pointed questions to the reader such as, “Who was right? Who was wrong? […] I cannot make that judgement. Can you? Or will it fall to those who shall write the record of what happened here?” Still, the concept was sound, if not entirely effective in execution, and the eventual twist revealing the storyteller’s identity was well earned. The book finds its sweet spot when describing the mech pilot training sequences, the characters living and learning together how to control their seraphs and work as a team, while under threat from forces without and within the Empire. It is the kind of story usually found in film or animation or manga, a callback to classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) and Mobile Suit Gundam (1979-1980), rarely seen in Anglophone prose, but Yang transcribes the high-octane space battles and seraph fighter sequences with verve.
Where the book leaves the most questions is in its worldbuilding. The marriage of the Faithful’s institutionalised religion with the fantastical skill of stone-working in a far-future interstellar society, itself located between faith and science, is fascinating. The hurtle of twists and revelations at the denouement of the story was also a gripping payoff. Yet much of the political intrigue and diplomatic machinations that surround key supporting characters are shrouded in mystery, with many details about the Faithful and the Heretics’ culture, politics, and wider power structures only hinted at or glossed over. Partially, this is a function of Misery’s limited POV and ignorance, as her largely conceptual investment in the conflict leaves few emotional stakes for the reader until the last third of the book. However, it weakens a prominent supporting character, the disgraced princess Lee Alodia Lightning, whom Misery becomes interested in and whose politics seem to form an essential part of her motives. Much of this is setting up for plot threads in the following books, so the approach will appeal to those who are patient and enjoy the long game.
The Genesis of Misery is ultimately weird and wild. Its protagonist is a wreck, someone who starts from the bottom and then drives deeper downward, and that chaotic complexity is to the story’s credit. For their part, Misery ends the story the same way they began: a prisoner trapped, missing crucial information, furious and bewildered as they are made a pawn in a larger game they do not know or understand; the war and the world moves on, even as the identities of Misery’s angelic voices are revealed, and the narrative completely tears apart and reframes the creation history that the Faithful tell themselves. If you ever wanted to see mecha anime transmuted to prose fiction, or if you are seeking science fiction that explores the role of religion in a queer and interstellar setting, or if you simply want something genre-bending and unorthodox, this is the book for you. I anticipate diving into the secrets of the Larex Forge and a deeper understanding of the wider conflicts in Misery’s interstellar world in the sequels.