Travel Documents 39: The Fifth Gender

The 5th Gender: A Tinkered Stars Mystery

G. L. Carriger
Genre: Noble-bright, mystery, mm romance, far-future sf

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The Dust Cover Copy

A species that has no word for murder, has a murderer aboard their spaceship. 

ALIEN 

Tristol lives in exile. But he’s built a life for himself aboard a human space station. He’s even begun to understand the complex nuances of human courting rituals.

Detective Hastion is finally flirting back!

MURDER 

Except that Tristol’s beloved space station is unexpectedly contacted by the galoi – a xenophobic species with five genders, purple skin, and serious attitude. They need the help of a human detective because there’s a murderer aboard their spaceship. Murder is so rare, the galoi don’t even have a word for it.

Tristol knows this because he is galoi.

ROMANCE 

Which means that he and Detective Hastion are on the case… together.

Delicate Sensibilities? 

Contains men who love other men in graphic detail, regardless of gender, biology, or skin color… and lots of emotively sexy tentacle hair.

The Deets

The Scene

Worldbuilding

This is a truly wonderful world, built around community. Fans of DS9 will smile fondly at the idea of a space station that people have turned into their home and their neighborhood; a friendly community complete with a bazaar, a crotchety neighbor, and everything that makes a truly vibrant neighborhood worth living in. This multi-species community gets along quite well about ninety percent of the time, running like clockwork…and like clockwork, some parts occasionally go a little haywire.

The discussion of inter-cultural connection and diplomacy was tastefully done, and managed one of the most difficult feats in multi-culture sci-fi: telling a story where each culture has its own beauties and its own tragedies, but no culture has ‘got it wrong’ and no culture has ‘got it right’. Add to that a very deftly handled exploration of diplomatic posturing and inter-departmental turf disagreements, and you have a living, breathing multicultural society.

There’s a playful, organic nature to the scene-setting and design that allows the characters plenty of room to live.  It’s a world I was quite happy to inhabit as a reader.

The Crowd

Characterization

Bubbly Tris is an absolute delight to read. You spend most of your time as a reader wanting to give him a hug and keep him from walking into a wall. The fact that his natural effervescence hides a shockingly strong emotional core is something that I found particularly attractive; as a reader, the fluffy-character trope has started to wear on me. Give me someone who knows exactly how dark life is and is working to choose joy instead, and you have my attention.

His love interest is a type I’ve seen in life before: Drey is secretly sweet, devoted and kind, but wary of the world seeing vulnerability and therefore intent on keeping all that squishiness behind closed doors. Once those doors open, you’re going to get his whole heart. And other parts of him…

This is an unabashedly sex-positive story, and the sex scenes are that unicorn of sex in stories: useful in furthering the plot and the character development. That made them quite a lot of fun to read.

As always, Carriger pulls off personalities and mannerisms in the background characters that enrich the story without distracting from the main plot. I particularly enjoy the healthy and supportive superior-subordinate professional relationships she creates, giving her characters employers, superiors and bosses that bring out the best in their people.

By far the greatest strength in the characterization of this story is the writer’s ability to normalize exo-cultural characters and allow us to look through their eyes. Drey serves as our access character, expressing our own confusion and occasional discomfort with his partner’s culture. But as he learns to love Tris, we learn to see the universe through new eyes. And that is the greatest power of a story.

The Lingo

Writing Style

Carriger’s style is always joyfully alive, sweetly snarky and well-written. It is here. Puns, silly situations, plays on words and a lot of fluff lie over some integral truths about autonomy, humanity, and love.

The Moves

Plot

My only true quibble as a reader was in the speed of the romantic element to the plot. I was a bit thrown when, after several pages of being told that Drey was aloof and hard to please, I’m suddenly seeing all his walls–and his pants ;)–come down. The critical side to my mind stuck in its oar and complained that this happened too fast and didn’t allow for enough building in the narrative. But the rest of my mind was having such fun that the critic sat in the corner and shut up.

Beyond the romance, this was a truly powerful and well-wrought plotline, doing the narrative equivalent of walking the high-wire: creating a powerful story with no antagonists. There are no enemies here. Just well meaning people who got it wrong, and regret the mistakes they learn that they’ve made.

Overall Rating

A wonderfully bubbly, playful and sex-positive read. This one’s a gem. Grab it!