**** Ashlesha, by Jer Keene

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Rex Vis Tjin’s life has never been normal.

Not every kid spent their summer vacations learning tactics on paintball fields, or could strip down a .9mm and put it back together at military-acceptable speed, or had really good instincts for knowing things…including when to get out of the line of fire. By the time Rex realized the difference, he didn’t care. He’s third-eldest of eight kids and they’re all nuts, but they love each other. That’s the important part.

Four of them go into the military, thinking long-term careers. Then Rex’s brother dies in 2005 in Iraq. That’s the deal-breaker. Rex bows out after only eight years instead of twenty, and gets to spend the next decade figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. He attended a college he can’t remember graduating from. He didn’t care; it was just something to fill the empty spaces in his life.

Picking up available work through the Department of Defense fills those empty spaces nicely. Rex has a conscience and the ability to say “No thanks” if he doesn’t like a job. He gets to shoot things (or turn them into craters) and the pay is great. Awesome.

On his 36th birthday, Rex meets a redhead in a bar. He wasn’t planning on dating, but sometimes you just fit with someone, and he fits with Euan Ambrus very well.

His new favorite redhead is also sort-of the reason why 2016 pushes the envelope on what’s normal, but Rex figures that if you’re going to make an enemy out of an organization within the federal government, it might as well be the one that’s been up to sci-fi levels of weird since 1951.

Ahslesha is the debut novel of author Jer Keene, and while it’s not her best work (I have had the pleasure of reading some of her non-professional fiction), it is a very strong first novel. It’s definitely one that I will be happy to recommend to my friends, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Ashesha reads like an action movie, but without the annoying macho posturing that plagues most of the genre. The characters are fun, they’re relatable, they’re queer (some of them), and they are definitely well-rounded. While there might be a few too many of them, they never become boring or confusing, which is the challenge you face when handling a cast of eight siblings, their father, and various other family members. I, for one, am a reader that is very easy to confuse, and I didn’t have any problem here. Usually a novel with a lot of characters suffer from lack of personnality for some of these characters, so you as a reader can’t differenciate between some of the less important characters. Here, that is not a problem. Right away, all of the siblings have a very definite voice, and while they might not all bring something to the general plot (yet. There is still two books to go), they still make the story richer.

Rex, the main character, is a man who is used to weird. There is plenty of it in his family, what’s with his father who might have been part of a military ‘super soldier’ program (think less Captain America, more whatever the heck the military were trying to do with extremis in Iron Man III) and he and his siblings who might have inherited some of it. But when he starts to date Euan, suddenly the weird (and the dangerous) in his life skyrockets. He takes it well, considering. As a reader, it’s refreshing to see a character that doesn’t spend half the book panicking or wondering what is going on, but rather reacts. Rex and his family do plenty of reacting, and their answer to things that try to kill them is snark, puns, and lots of explosions. If you like competent characters, this is the book for you. Everyone gets shit done, and it’s very satisfying to read.

I mentionned that this reads like an action movie, and I suppose that this is a genre that is full of people reacting to stuff with extreme competence and explosions. But never have I seen an action story with so many pop culture references, affectionnate sibling teasing, and in which the main love story is a gay one.

And the queer content doesn’t stop there. Ashlesha has a big cast, and gives us tons of good stuff like an awesome ace character and a nonbinary one, which are probably the two rarest flavours of queer to find in media.

The book also has a glossary right at the beginning that tells you how to pronounce everyone’s name and the etymology of said names, which is awesome and I wish more people did. The author really did her research there, and it shows. Her characters come from all over the world, and they each of them carry their culture with them, and not just in a surface way like their names. You can tell that Jer Keene really dug deep to make authentic characters that her readers could find themselves in, no matter if they’re maori or american.

The writing is amazing too. To be honest, Jer Keene could be writing someone watching paint dry and it would be interesting, because she would find a way to insert character development into the scene. This is especially apparent in the sex scenes. Yes, there are sex scenes in the book, although she is working on a YA version with tasteful fade-to-black for teen readers. I don’t know how she will manage that, though, because those scenes are rife with character development. They are a part of the story, and not just random scenes that break the flow of the narrative like, well, most sex in novels or tv. (Hence why I refuse submissions with elements of erotica, because not a lot of people do it well and as an ace reader, I’m very picky. If the sex doesn’t tell me something vital about the characters and their relationship, something that a tasteful fade-to-black wouldn’t manage just as well, I don’t want to see it.)

The whole story is very well-written, although very fast paced. The reader feels like they don’t really get a break until the very end, which fits with what the characters are living through. And the plot twists are to die to live for.

 


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