Science fiction, especially speculative science fiction, more than any other genre, in my opinion, has had the greatest impact upon modern society. It is progressive, influential, and always forward thinking. From the first black member of a prime-time ensemble cast, who just happened to be female, to the ideas of alien intelligence, it asks us again and again: What is humanity? What does it truly mean to be human?
In this story, E.M. Hamill asks us to not only question humanity, but to question identity and gender. What makes us who we are, and how does the flesh that houses us shape us? In Dali, genetics and mutation have come together to create a human that is neither fully male nor fully female. Dali simply exists in a body that can be either gender or a true hermaphrodite.
Not quite a year ago, Dali lost both husband and wife — and their unborn son — in a terrorist attack. Dali and their spouses were activists for members of the third-gender population, also called changelings. Lost in grief, Dali has turned to drugs, one night stands, and drinking. Lots of drinking. Enough drinking to numb their mind and help them get into fights with bar patrons, especially when those other people happen to be members of the New Puritan Movement.
The NPM wishes to put an end to changelings, to deny their rights and even their humanity. After all, if a changeling can’t breed as nature intended — without the aid of in-vitro or other medically assisted pregnancy — then they shouldn’t be considered as proper members of society. Add xenophobia and isolationism and the group makes a perfect target for Dali’s rancor.
But it’s not just Dali and other third genders the NPM has issue with. Humanity discovered they were not alone in the world and the numerous alien species, some with weapons and ships more threatening to humanity’s survival than the occasional intersex individual, have prompted a rash of xenophobia.
It is brought to Dali’s attention by Kiran Singh, another third-gender, that other changelings are going missing. More than that, no one seems to care. No resources are being put out to find them due to their lifestyle being considered “risky.” Dali, at first, ignores Kiran’s comments, but can’t help getting involved when, on a journey to their friend’s planet, they discover four changelings in stasis pods. Between pirates and politics, Dali’s only thought is to save their people, which brings them to Sumner’s attention.
Rion Sumner is the commander of a covert team who work on behalf of the Remoliad to gather intelligence and information, keeping an eye out for those who would violate the Alliance’s laws. Sometimes they do more, like asking Dali to take the place of one of the changeling kidnap victims so they can find out who is taking them and why. It doesn’t take much convincing; Dali isn’t exactly suicidal, but a mission — especially this mission — may be what Dali needs to find some closure for the death of their husband, wife, and son.
So it’s into the stasis pod and into the unknown, hoping Sumner and the others will be able to rescue all of them before the infamous Lord Rhix has them sold, or killed, or worse. But things go from bad to worse and with more threats from the New Puritan Movement and surprises from Lord Rhix. With all the madness going on, even Dali doesn’t quite know who they are, anymore… or who they want to be.
There is so much in this book to unpack. I’m going to start with the easy stuff, first. Plot, writing, and world-building. Then we’ll move on to Dali.
The plot of this book is tight. It’s well-paced, well-planned. and there were no extraneous scenes. To be honest, I really liked this book. The writing is good, but the author — like me — has a love of commas. They’re everywhere! As the book gets going there are fewer comma catastrophes, but it can be noticeable when they happen. The world building is good. It’s the small touches that really make the story work; as one planet has a different atmosphere, the ship — while traveling — adjusts gravity and air composition to make it easier on their passengers. There are small bits like that throughout the book that really work for me. Aliens aren’t described in great detail, nor are their cultures, but each one has a distinct personality and image that makes it easy to visualize.
And then there’s Dali. Dali’s gender — as a third-gender — is rather topical for us, at the moment, and Hamill’s vision for this character is rather interesting. Dali tends to express not as neuter, but rather as both. Dali is both male and female until they choose to be more masculine or more feminine. As a third-gender empath, Dali can look at their prospective partner’s emotions and determine which aspect of themself would be most enjoyed and will shift their body to suit.
We see Dali be female through much of the book, relationship-wise. There is a scene with Tella Sharp, a doctor fascinated by changelings, where Dali is intimate with someone who has no preference as to Dali’s gender. Not because she’s interested in Dali as a person, but because she wanted the novelty of an intersex lover. It’s only Tella and Rion Sumner who seem to be able to look beyond the idea of gender and see Dali as they truly are: neither male nor female, but simply Dali. There is a rapport with Sumner that hints at the possibility of something more than a working relationship, but the author is in no rush to push the issue. Dali is still very much recovering, not only from the loss of his spouses, but from the trauma of watching them die.
This isn’t a story about Dali and their romances as much as it is Dali and themself. Finding out who they are without the support of having to be a husband or a father or a diplomat. I liked Dali. I liked their intelligence, their understanding of the world they existed in, and I enjoyed watching their climb from despair to — if not hope, then to peace. I would very much like to see a sequel to this book, or more stories in this particular world.