Pendt Harland has only known cruelty and indifference. Unlike her siblings and cousins, Pendt has a rare genetic ability that causes everyone on her family’s spaceship to view her existence as a waste of precious resources. So when the ship docks at Brannick Station just before Pendt’s 18th birthday, she seizes the opportunity to escape and meets the Brannick twins, Ned and Fisher, who take her in as part of their family. As Pendt’s abilities grow to their full potential, the twins realize she could be the key to changing their own fates.
Well known for her YA science fiction and fantasy novels, author E.K. Johnston (That Inevitable Victorian Thing and Exit, Pursued by a Bear) explores a new interstellar world in Aetherbound, plunging readers into a magical galaxy shaped by a history of conflict between a ruling empire and a rebellion that never truly died out. Concrete details bring this futuristic world to life, illuminating how the conflict’s legacy impacts everything from the way food is prepared to how neighborhoods are structured and how the vast universe is navigated.
Aetherbound’s characters are equally engaging. From a young age, Pendt is subject to her family’s imposed calorie counting and neglect, and her journey to safety and self-love will have readers rooting for her success. The Brannick twins are charming and complex, anchored by their affectionate relationship with one another and genuine empathy for others. Ned is a bold leader who’s dedicated to managing Brannick Station despite his secret dream to leave it all behind and join the rebellion. Fisher is willing to do anything to protect his home and the people he loves but lacks the Y chromosome the departing empire made a requirement to sustain life on the station—a requirement both twins find “antiquated and stupid.”
To keep each other and the station safe, the trio bears the burdens of a growing rebellion, the loss of loved ones and the sting of betrayal. Johnston never loses sight of the humanity at the heart of her narrative, treating readers to Ned’s one-liners, Fisher’s love for video games and Pendt’s affinity for gardening. These moments of lightness and joy contrast against the pain they must face, making this futuristic tale feel grounded and real.
Johnston often includes LGBTQ+ characters in her books, and her portrayal of Fisher is subtle, woven deeply into the author’s vision of the way characters construct and perceive gender identity as something completely separate from genetics. As Fisher and Pendt become close, he guides her toward understanding that a person’s value is so much more than the circumstances of their birth, a theme that resonates throughout the book.
The beauty of Aetherbound lies in its characters’ abilities to face painful, terrible circumstances and still fight for a better life. It’s a thought-provoking and hopeful book that encourages a closer examination of what truly makes life valuable.