Charlie Jane Anders, the Nebula and Locus Award-winning author of two novels for adults, All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night, turns to YA with Victories Greater Than Death, the first book in a new trilogy. It’s the story of Tina, a seemingly ordinary girl who is actually the clone of a legendary alien war hero, Captain Thaoh Argentian, whose troops hid her on Earth until she grew old enough to rejoin the epic intergalactic battle between good and evil. When Tina’s heroic destiny finally comes calling, it turns out to be nothing like she imagined.
Why did you decide to make the switch to YA?
I've loved young adult fiction for as long as I can remember. Young adult books have been some of my most vivid and inspiring reading experiences. I often find that YA can deal with political themes and issues like queer identity in a smarter and more forthright way than adult novels can, because teens aren't as scared of these topics. What made me want to write YA myself was seeing so many fun, adventure-oriented YA books come out recently, like Marie Lu’s Warcross, Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy’s Once & Future, Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea and all of Leigh Bardugo's stuff. YA felt like a place where you could tell a fun, exciting story about teens having an adventure and being there for each other.
Tina spends the first part of the book dreaming of the day she’ll be transported into a life where she’s the hero. I think her desire—to escape, to be swept up by a grand destiny, to have a defined purpose and to know what that purpose is—is something a lot of teen readers are going to find really relatable. Did you ever feel this way when you were a teenager?
Oh yeah, that was pretty much the only thing I felt when I was a teenager. All I wanted was to have a spaceship swoop down and take me away. I used to fantasize that the TARDIS from “Doctor Who” would appear and I'd get invited to come along on a tour of the universe. I wrote Victories Greater Than Death for my teen self, who would have loved this story about leaving behind this whole ridiculous planet (and who also really needed to see positive depictions of LGBTQ+ kids in fiction).
Tina often feels like she’s failing to live up to the expectations set by her past life as Captain Argentian, which is basically an impossible standard. What advice would you give to teen readers who identify with how Tina feels in these moments?
I feel this so deeply. As a kid, I was “dual-exceptional”: I had a learning disability, but I also was labeled as a gifted child. In junior high, I went back and forth between remedial classes and gifted programs. I was constantly getting the message that I wasn't living up to my potential, and I felt like tons of pressure were coming down on me all the time. I wish I could go back in time and tell my past self that there are many ways to be smart or capable and that nobody gets to tell you if you're living up to your potential.
"The future is nothing but the product of the past."
At one point, someone tells Tina, “Being a superhero is easy. Being a real person? That’s hard.” Which parts of being a “real person” does Tina struggle with?
I think this is the core idea of the book. Tina is obsessed with living up to the legacy she's inherited and fulfilling her heroic destiny, and she doesn't want to think about what that might cost her. She wants to be able to save everybody and protect the helpless all on her own—and she doesn't realize that she's stronger and better if she leans on other people. There's a scene halfway through the book in which Tina really confronts the downside, the cost, of being a hero and saving people, and it's a huge shock to her. That scene wasn't in my outline and I hadn't planned on it at all, but as soon as I wrote it, I knew it had to be a huge turning point.
Can you tell us a bit about the romantic dynamic between Tina and Elza, the crew’s hacker? What did you want to explore through their relationship?
Elza challenges Tina a lot. I always like writing relationships between people who have different viewpoints and ideals, because that's how you get the fun sparks. Elza is more cynical and questioning than Tina, because of some of the bad experiences she had back on Earth, and she raises valid questions about Tina's heroic dreams. I loved writing the scenes in which Tina and Elza start to see each other more clearly and recognize that they're both obsessed with trying to save people, just in different ways.
You mention so many alien species throughout the book. Do you have a favorite?
This was a huge part of the fun of writing this book and this trilogy overall. I had a total blast. I ended up creating a private wiki to keep track of all the aliens and all of the worlds and backstories in the book. Between all the different drafts and deleted chapters and alternate versions, there's so much more about all these aliens than you ever see on the page.
My favorite aliens change from day to day, but I have a huge soft spot for the Javarah, who are sort of fox-cat people who invented special "fur" to help them control their violent impulses.
I loved how, no matter where the crew goes, no matter what species they talk to or how different their culture or values are, nearly all the characters in the book introduce themselves with both their names and their pronouns. Why did you decide to make that custom so (literally) universal?
It just made sense to me. If you have a device that can translate any alien language, then it ought to be able to make sure there are no misunderstandings of any kind—and getting someone's pronouns wrong is a kind of misunderstanding. This ended up feeling like wish fulfillment to me: a world where nobody ever gets misgendered or labeled against their will.
There’s a temptation to view every story that features spaceships and supercomputers as “futuristic,” but in fact, much of this book involves the crew investigating and learning about the galaxy’s past. What roles do history and the past play in this story?
The future is nothing but the product of the past. When I think about the fictional worlds I've gotten obsessed with, the thing they all have in common is a rich and complex history, with lots and lots of old wounds that were never fully healed. Part of what made me feel like this series was starting to click was when I came up with a fun explanation for the ancient mysteries the characters were trying to solve and the Seven-Pointed Empire, which is the oppressive regime that fell hundreds of years ago. I wanted there to be a lot of wild, gonzo backstory that people could keep uncovering.
Photo of Charlie Jane Anders courtesy of Sarah Deragon.