Series: Iamos #1
Also by this author: Seven Years among Dragons, Cheerleaders from Planet X
Life on Mars isn't all it's cracked up to be when you're Isaak Contreras. Ever since his dad disappeared two years ago, Isaak's been struggling to keep up in school, and he never seems to be able to live up to his mom's high expectations. But everything changes when he finds an ancient coin among his missing father's possessions. The coin makes him a target of both the Martian colonial government and a crazed scientist with a vendetta—and it leads him to a girl from another time named Nadin, who believes that Isaak might just hold the key to saving both their worlds. That is, if they can survive long enough to use it...
It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally gotten around to reading Fourth World by Lyssa Chiavari. Fourth World has been on my radar for, gosh, I don’t know how long as featuring not one but TWO asexual spectrum protagonists in a YA scifi novel, and one of them is demisexual.
Yeah, I don’t know how it took me ages to pick it up either. But pick it up I did and now I am here to natter about it! Let’s get to it! After some content warnings.
CW: Ablist language, aromisic language, acemisic language (called out), racism (called out), non-consensual kissing.
First, some notes on things I didn’t like so much. I continue to not be a fan of first person, even though I can see an in-story reason for the choice. But, more than that, I was disappointed to see Isaak use quiet so much ablist and aromisic language. I wasn’t expecting it and it hit unexpectedly hard and, while the text makes it clear his actions in this are harmful, I don’t recall it explicitly discussing why. I’m hopeful, though, that the sequel will give Nadin the words she needs to discuss her sexual and romantic orientations and that it’ll address it in more details.
And that’s more or less it. I’ll admit that I also didn’t enjoy the book as much as I might have simply because the premise is one that I’m not overly fond of, but that’s a) a very personal thing, b) I did actually enjoy it a lot, so I’m only mentioning this to explain why I’m not sounding more enthusiastic when I enjoyed it so much.
Let’s get to the good stuff! Isaak is a demisexual polyglot and, like, can we start with the part where languages play an important part in this book? Because they do and I really loved the interplay between Isaak and the System when that happens and, just, I am here for stories that think about multilingualism existing and include it in the world-building. It’s also, admittedly, where my dislike of the premise comes in, but it mostly avoids the trope where (Western) European are exclusively tied to ancient, highly advanced (and yet destroyed and forgotten) ancient civilisations and it avoids the whole “Aliens built ancient non-Western monuments!” trope (if only because it posits the aliens are actually humans; I’m hopeful the next book in the trilogy will explore this in more depth).
But languages. I was talking languages. So! Isaak is a polyglot and knows 8 languages in varying levels of fluency and we get to see some of this in action in the book and it is loads of fun when it does happen and especially when Nadin shows up and there are linguistic shenanigans and also people learning languages from one another and, look, the languages are my jam, okay. Y’all should’ve told me there were linguistic shenanigans along with my ace spec rep!
Anyway! More on point, the book wasn’t structured how I expected it to be, so don’t go into it expecting alternating pov chapters. That won’t happen until part 3 and, while it did initially throw me, I actually really liked the approach that Lyssa took there and think it worked really well, giving us a great chance to be introduced to the settings and the narrators on their own terms before starting to weave the narratives together and balancing perspectives.
There’s also government conspiracies and secrets and political manoeuvring and discussions of racism and eugenics and totalitarianism and classism. Also there are time travel shenanigans and family dynamics and discussions of sexuality. The book uses ‘demisexuality’ explicitly, notably when Isaak reflects on a conversation he had with his father when he came out. (Isaak’s father, fyi, is a jerk.)
But the book really tries to weave Isaak’s demisexuality throughout the text as well, which is… I’ll admit, not something I’ve seen books do before. Not like this, anyway. Very often, ime, asexual spec characters are written as… an absence, a negative, a non-existence, which leads to writers asking questions like “But how can I show a character is asexual when there is nothing to show!?” and which, in turn, leads to situations where an asexual-coded character does a 180 because Suddenly Sexual Attraction. (And, like, this is a valid way to depict demisexuality? For some people it works like that. But in fiction it also actually hurts other ace spec readers.)
Anyway, I’m rambling a little. My point is that when Isaak discusses that he’s demisexual and when the book describes how he personally experiences demisexuality it doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere. It feels like it builds on stuff we’ve learned about Isaak before and… that’s not something I’ve seen before and I heart the book for this.
And Isaak isn’t the only ace spec character! Nadin is also ace and, before we go on, can I just say that I adore Nadin and lovelovelovelove her discovering her independence and self-worth. But, also, Nadin is sex-repulsed and there is a whole emotional arc of this story that deals with being a sex-repulsed person in a relationship with someone who isn’t sex-repulsed and my heart bleeds for Nadin so much, but I loved that it was there all the same because we don’t really see people ever navigate relationships like that and I hate that sense of self-hatred that Nadin now feels because she doesn’t understand her feelings or why no, sweetling, no, you did not break anything and you are not broken and I desperately want book 2 because I’m so so so hopeful that we’ll see Nadin discovering her sexuality and coming to understand that she’s not broken and embracing that and then discussing her relationships with this new knowledge and being a story where this is something that gets dealt with and just <3 I just… I really want to see Nadin’s sexuality get the same narrative treatment that Isaak’s did in one of the subsequent books. I would love and adore that to bits.
But that’s future hopes and not actually about this book. I just… I so appreciated these scenes. I’m saddened to say that the aro-rep is non-existent, but the ace spec rep is, in my opinion, really good and I was delighted by it. This is the demisexual representation I was hoping to see the first time I picked up a book with a demisexual character. This combination of showing and telling that combined to explain demisexuality through example as much as anything else. <3
And, also, the story is a load of fun. The voices felt a little off for me at times, but the narratives make up for it by just being plain fun. The story starts off with Isaak and his friends getting into trouble, with part 1 focusing on Isaak and how he wound up on Iamos. Part 2 focuses on Nadin and the immediate aftermath of how Isaak’s arrival affects life on Iamos. Part 3 focuses on the two of them working together to uncover the truth of what’s happening on Iamos and possibly finding a way to save both their worlds.
It’s just… It was a lot of fun to read. Nadin and Isaak are great characters and they play well off each other and off their friends. I loved Isaak’s friendships with Henry and Tamara, and the emerging friendship with Scylla. I loved Nadin’s relationship with Ceilos and how Isaak just kind of upended… everything. Also Gitrin, whom we did not see nearly enough of if you ask me (which, as you’re reading this, I suppose you kind of did). Also Eos. Eos was a lot of fun too and I just. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
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