Phoebe's Reviews > Glow

Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan
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's review
Sep 16, 11

bookshelves: young-adult, sci-fi, intergalactic-academy-reviews
Read from September 02 to 08, 2011

Atmospheric Analysis: I wasn’t too fond of Glow‘s stark, subtle cover at first, thanks in particular to the obvious stock image of the girl in the porthole that forms the letter “O.” But in reading, it grew on me–it captures the book’s darkness and claustrophobia well.

The American cover is a huge improvement over the UK version, which features a cartoonishly photoshopped face. I mean, how big is that girl’s forehead? What happened to her chin?! Cool idea (and I dig the font embellishment), awful execution.

Planetary Class: Though set in space, the science fiction of Glow is a touch harder than most space opera; it’s dark thematics and cynicism about humanity also distinguish it from old school, fundamentally optimistic space opera works like Star Wars. But some sci-fi fans have made room for both darkness and scientific rigor in their space opera by distinguishing a “new” space opera–one that encompasses gloomy, techy works like the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Glow would be right at home under this label.

Mohs Rating: Glow rates a 4 on the Mohs scale. While the type of deep space travel and artificial gravity isn’t possible, the use of a constant acceleration drive makes the space travel at least plausible. I’m not so sure about the giant robot suits, though.

Planetary Viability: Ryan tries really, really, really hard to fool you into thinking that the worlds aboard the spaceships Empyrean and New Horizon are founded on plausible science. She’s clearly read some wikipedia articles about space travel and generally seems to be aiming for a hard sci-fi feel.

Unfortunately, it all falls apart during an absolutely painful “As you know, Bob”-style infodump. Rather than seeding technical details throughout the novel, our heroine Waverly pauses to reflect on physics classes with another character. And during this conversation, Ryan’s major worldbuilding error becomes clear. She thinks that space is an ocean, and that the ships, if not accelerating, will come to a stop on their own. In fact, though she’s provided her ships with reverse thrusters to provide some form of braking, she seems to imply that they’re not in use:

“. . . that was the original mission plan. Halfway to New Earth, both ships were supposed to cease their acceleration, turn around, and point the thrusters toward New Earth to slow themselves down. With the ships pointing in the opposite direction, slowing down would create as much a feeling of gravity as accelerating. So why didn’t the New Horizon just do that? Waverly was stumped. (p. 91, ARC edition)

I suspect Ryan wrote herself into a corner there due to several plot twists, but wasn’t clear that she understands that when a spaceship stops accelerating, it will just continue to coast at the same speed forever–until something stops it.

Xenolinguistical Assessment: Glow is told through a delicate third-person POV. The language is crisp and lovely without any unnecessary embellishment.

Expanded Report: Glow is the story of Waverly and Kieran, a pair of sixteen-year-olds being prepped for marriage aboard their claustrophobic spaceship home. Young Waverly isn’t absolutely certain that she wants to marry her boyfriend, but since she’s expected to have at least four children while very young, she doesn’t precisely have a choice.

But then their ship is attacked by another, the New Horizon. Unlike the Empyrean, the New Horizon was populated with religious folks, who unfortunately lost their own capacity for reproduction a generation ago. So they do what any inhabitants on a spaceship full of lies would: they attack the Empyrean, and steal all of their young women.

This is a dark, dark book. I feel like I can’t state that enough: it’s dark. If you’re wondering precisely how dark it is, the narrative includes religious zealots, drugged food, invasive surgery without consent, murder, riots, solitary confinement, and an atmosphere of constant sexual violence. And the sexual violence is not only perpetrated by the baddies: even the good guys seem to take part, leering at Waverly from the outskirts of her memories.

Waverly and the other young girls are taken onto the New Horizon to be integrated into existing family units. The population there is religious, reminiscent of early American pioneers (nearly all of the characters on both ships have protestant/British names, except for a small handful with awkwardly “exotic” names like ). They’re not quite strawman Christians, though I could imagine that Anne Mather, the ship’s pastor and captain,rubbing some religious readers the wrong way. But Ryan doesn’t seem to believe that these individuals are particularly terrible compared to those Empyrean. As I said, they’re pretty nasty folks, too–who starve their children and then force them into marriage at a very young age.

The book rotates perspective between Waverly and Kieran’s stories. Waverly’s is probably the stronger. She grows from a naive girl into a practical-minded leader. Some of this growth is due to the trespasses on her body that she experiences during her time on the Empyrean. I don’t want to spoil anything, but what happens to her is really horrific.

Meanwhile, Kieran is busy replaying Lord of the Flies with the other boys aboard the Empyrean. He is jailed by Seth, a romantic rival for Waverly’s affection who is largely depicted as a cartoonish monster; Kieran has to overcome his physical isolation to become the ship’s leader, a position promised to him since birth. The boys generally act like savages, though some of Seth’s criticisms of Kieran are oddly correct. He has been privileged, in a way that no other boy aboard the ship has been. Later, when he begins to form an on-board religion that I suspect was meant as an answer to Anne Mather’s more sinister Christianity, he slips into rhetoric that seems quite ominous, too, citing the other boys’ lack of faith as the reason for their parents’ deaths:

“I’m wondering how different things might be if we had been paying attention to the spiritual side of our mission. What if we’d been more mindful? Would God have been kinder to us in the hour of our need? Would our mothers and fathers and sisters be with us here today if we’d paid Him more attention? (p. 265)

The only characters here who are remotely likable are the girls–Waverly and her comrades-in-captivity. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a nuanced portrait or a complex person. It’s that Ryan’s overwhelming thesis seems to be one about the inherent evil of humanity–a vision that I don’t particularly agree with. This dark view of man informs everything about Glow, making the book bleak and heavy, a downright uncomfortable read. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a striking book, and one I’ll think of often. I really appreciated the skill with which it was written, and because I’m curious how Waverly and Kieran will overcome what seem to me to be their now-insurmountable differences in belief, I’ll likely read the sequels. But I still didn’t enjoy reading Glow. In fact, the novel filled me with dread.

Glow will appeal to readers of who love dark sci-fi with a techy feel. Fans of Ender’s Game and Battlestar Galactica should take a look. An excerpt is available to read online from, and the novel is available to purchase from Amazon or your local indie bookstore.

Review crossposted from the Intergalactic Academy.
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Reading Progress

09/02/2011 page 15
5.0% "Hopefully the third time starting this one will be the charm. The writing is pretty but feels . . . quaint? Dated? Hard to put my finger on it."
09/05/2011 page 55
18.0% "Are we supposed to like Kieran? Because he's kind of a tool."
09/06/2011 page 90
29.0% "Ouch, urgh, painful science exposition that tries very hard to get the science of space travel right but falls. You can't just slow down a ship that was constantly accelerating. It would continue to coast indefinitely . . ."
09/07/2011 page 141
46.0% "I wonder if these Beatles lyrics will be in the final edition."
09/07/2011 page 185
60.0% "1. Ryan keeps saying "portals" when I THINK she means "portholes" and 2. Why isn't Waverly freaking out more right now? I'M freaking out for her. There's something about this book that makes me so uneasy. The message seems to be about the inherent evil of people--there's all this looming terribleness. I'm reading fast, caught up in the plot. But it makes me feel kind of nauseated. And not in a good way." 4 comments
09/08/2011 page 261
85.0% "I have NO idea how I'm going to review this."
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Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by Vi (new) - added it

Vi Vi ...*takes off list*

message 2: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Vi wrote: "...*takes off list*"

If you like dark stuff, it might fly. But yeah. Really strange.

Rachel Hartman The Beatles lyrics WERE in the final version, BTW.

message 4: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Rachel wrote: "The Beatles lyrics WERE in the final version, BTW."

Interesting! I wonder how much they had to pay for the rights. I'd imagine an arm and a leg.

Rachel Hartman Phoebe wrote: "Rachel wrote: "The Beatles lyrics WERE in the final version, BTW."

Interesting! I wonder how much they had to pay for the rights. I'd imagine an arm and a leg."

I dunno, it was short enough that maybe it was within fair use range? There's no mention of the song or the Beatles on the copyright page. Hang on...

It was just "Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly." No mention of the Beatles themselves. Was it a longer quote in the ARC?

Of course, that song is in the public domain in THE FUTURE! ;)

message 6: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Huh, interesting. Ages ago, I used a bunch of song lyrics in a work in progress so I did some research on it and the internet was pretty split about whether commercial use such as in a novel would constitute fair use at all:

I can't find the quote in the ARC. Looks like my page numbers were off. Harumph.

message 7: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Phoebe wrote: "Huh, interesting. Ages ago, I used a bunch of song lyrics in a work in progress so I did some research on it and the internet was pretty split about whether commercial use such as in a novel would ..."

More importantly . . . did she continue to call portholes portals in the finished version? Drove me nuts!

Rachel Hartman It's on 136 in my book. Near the bottom of the page.

message 9: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Found it! Yeah, it's only two lines. Still, I wonder what the estate of Michael Jackson would think about that. Ah well.

Rachel Hartman Yes to portals.

message 11: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Rachel wrote: "Yes to portals."

So weird!

Rachel Hartman I imagine the estate would be none too pleased, but might not consider it worth pursuing. They may be counting on that latter. Or else the young whippersnappers in editing didn't know the song? That seems extremely far-fetched, but then I think of that novel (I forget the title) where the paranormal-romantic hero had a feminine Russian last name. I wouldn't have thought that possible either. So there you go.

(Also, I KNOW what a big Beatles fan you are, so I KNOW you know Michael Jackson wasn't a Beatle. But wouldn't the world have been different if he was? You need coffee. I prescribe it.)

message 13: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Michael Jackson owned most of the rights to the Beatles' catalog. It was actually quite a big deal, as he befriended Paul McCartney (this was during the Ebony & Ivory period), who told him that there was money to be made in music rights.

Then he turned around and outbid McCartney on his own music.

Rachel Hartman Phoebe wrote: "Michael Jackson owned most of the rights to the Beatles' catalog. It was actually quite a big deal, as he befriended Paul McCartney (this was during the Ebony & Ivory period), who told him that the..."

HA! PWNED by the real Beatles fan! I tip my hat to you, madame.

message 15: by Phoebe (new) - added it


Never doubt a Beatles fan. ;)

Rachel Hartman New scenario: they DID ask Paul McCartney and he was like, "Oh, sure, use the song. Use all the songs. I don't care." And so they did.

message 17: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Wouldn't it get a little "used with permission" doobly-doo, then?

Rachel Hartman Phoebe wrote: "Wouldn't it get a little "used with permission" doobly-doo, then?"

Oh, presumably.

message 19: by Crowinator (new) - added it

Crowinator I skimmed your plot summary/analysis because I haven't read this yet, but the fact that you mentioned Battlestar Galatica means I have to read this now.

message 20: by Bryce (new)

Bryce Anderson [I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on the rest.]

I don't see how you get "she thinks space is an ocean" from the passage you cite. In fact, that seems like a perfectly good hard sci-fi description of space travel.

If you've been using acceleration to create your gravity for half the trip, you have a lot of kinetic energy to dissipate during the next half of the trip. If they don't, they should be expecting to run into New Earth at a significant fraction of light speed, and that deceleration has to be spread out over a long period so that the inhabitants don't experience much more than 1g.

Maybe I'm missing some context. She asks "why don't they just do that?" but it's not clear what they're doing instead. Did they drift to a stop somewhere? You might want to do a quick edit to explain what the problem is.

message 21: by Phoebe (new) - added it

Phoebe Bryce, there's nothing to edit because it's not clear in the book what they're doing instead. In fact, I'm a bit unclear as to what you're saying--spaceships don't just "drift to a stop," which is precisely the problem. If you don't use reverse thrusters, you should continue moving at the same speed indefinitely due to a lack of friction in space.

message 22: by Bryce (new)

Bryce Anderson As I said, I didn't read the book. I don't know where they are in their trip, how fast they're going, what point they're at in the trip. Then I'd have to know what problems they think they're facing, and how they're trying to solve it.

So I do think there's something to edit. As written, there's no clear evidence that the author believes that the ship will drift to a stop. You say that's what she believes, but the review just doesn't yet make the case.

Now, if the plot is too muddled to understand these travel problems or how they're trying to solve them, it's hard to say for sure that she's committing a physics blunder. Though it does say something worse about the book.

Let me take another stab at the point I was trying to make before: the mechanics of the trip absolutely require that they turn around and use their engines to decelerate. They'll get to New Earth either way (as you said, they won't slow down), but if they don't reverse engines and slow down, they'll hit it at a hundred million miles an hour. Bad way to end the trip.

So if they're not already turning around, they're probably kind of screwed.

message 23: by Phoebe (last edited Jun 10, 2012 09:11PM) (new) - added it

Phoebe Well, yeah, that's a problem with the book, though, Bryce, not the review. I've pretty much provided the entirety of the explanation here. The ship slows, and eventually stops and we know that they don't use the reverse thrusters, because they've told us so here. It's entirely possible that it's not what the author believes, I suppose, but the lack of clarifying information implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the physics (and a common one). Perhaps the author came up with some brilliant scientific mechanism to make this perfectly plausible, but, well, there's no evidence of that here for the reader.

message 24: by Bryce (new)

Bryce Anderson "The ship slows, and eventually stops..."

Ah! See, you never explicitly say in the review. You twice describe the author as having the belief that things drift to a stop in space, but you don't say what leads you to that belief. If anything, the passage you quote indicates that the author knows that the ship needs to be actively decelerated.

I call it a problem with your review. You might call it a problem with my reading comprehension. Either way, the matter is settled to my satisfaction. I do appreciate the thoroughness of your review, and wish you well in your future xenolinguistical analyses.

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