The Undefeated by Una McCormack

Rating: 5 out of 5.

MONICA GREATOREX HAD, in her sixtieth year, resisted acquiring dependents but had (in that easy way we may observe in the rich wherever and whenever we are) accrued considerable wealth without particular effort on her part. Money begot money, and this miraculous alchemy had eased Monica’s passage through life, a life which she would be the first to admit had been blessed—with adventure, travel, lovers of all persuasions, and, above all, the liberty to do whatever she chose. Looking back over her six decades, she was satisfied that she had not, on the whole, squandered either her talents or her resources.

The Undefeated is a novel that fails to live up to an interesting premise. I was excited to read about a “warrior of words” and “no holds barred” journalist – the blurb mentions front-line war zones, courageous exposés on corruption, scandal, et cetera. I came in expecting a thrilling space opera with excitement and action.

Unfortunately, that’s not the book I found myself reading. If you’re looking for a book that’s a bit slower and reads similarly to a succinct memoir, this might be a good choice. Personally, it didn’t scratch my itch for space opera, nor did I find it to be particularly engaging. Monica, the narrator, simply did not particularly interest me as a person – or least not as she was portrayed. The portions of her life which did intrigue me were given very little screen time.

While it’s not a bad book, per se, it’s nothing new or insightful. It’s merely a bit… bland. If we take a step away from the blurb and examine the content of the book itself, this would be a better description:

Humanity has both colonized the universe under the mantle of the Commonwealth government and discovered a way to give humans extra strength and longevity, but only with expensive medicine. This treatment is used on convicts to create a slave class, called the jenjer. The jenjer are essentially just normal humans narratively speaking, as we never actually see them use any of their abilities. Entirely off-screen, the jenjer have figured out a way to avoid the need for medicine and have formed an uprising. There are no jenjer point of view characters. The narrator, along with her jenjer slave, have traveled to her homeworld, where her slave leaves her and she decides she will wait there for the war to come. They do not do anything on Torello other than look at abandoned town she grew up in. There are no scenes whatsoever from the war itself, and she is certainly not on the “front lines” of anything.

Although ostensibly this is a book set in a time of war, this premise seems divorced from the primary plot arc. The main character, who is not a jenjer, only has her young life detailed out. We learn some about her adult life, but all of the genuinely interesting parts are glossed over. There are only a few short sentences about her career as a war zone journalist writing exposés on corruption and poverty. Mostly, we see the mundane aspects of her life. She’s not particularly sympathetic – when her mother was dying, she was mostly antsy to get away again. We don’t get to see many of her emotions, it’s very impersonal, and simply… not  engaging. There is a bit of information regarding the process the Commonwealth used to destabilize existing worlds and take control of their governments, which I did enjoy in all fairness. However, toxic colonization is nothing new, and it was not a clever or new take on the subject.

Similarly, the novel doesn’t have a particularly interesting take on slavery. The narrator seems mostly okay with the jenjer being slaves, albeit with a few pangs of empathy – which is kind of screwed up. She’s quick to pat herself on the back for feeling even a little bad for their situation, but she’s certainly not harkening back to her early days and speaking out against the injustice she sees occurring or campaigning for jenjer emancipation.

She saw few jenjer, of course, and was curious to see how people managed with that support absent. . . Gale [Monica’s jenjer slave] had also noticed their glaring absence and had attracted some thinly veiled hostility: sharp angry glances; the occasional muttered curse. On the surface he was unruffled, but she promised herself that they would not remain here very long, and even felt a little proud of her sensitivity.

We don’t get to see the true day to day life of the jenjer pre-rebellion – but couldn’t we at least get some interesting points of view within the rebellion itself now that it’s happening? Or at least more information on the actual threat and how they’re organized? A little more information on how it built up? It was unsatisfying how little we knew about what is ostensibly the premise of the book and primary threat to the established government.

The writing style is clipped and distant. While this is an effective stylistic choice given that the narrator is a journalist, it’s not personally my cup of tea. It caused a novel that was already low on emotion and impact to become even moreso. The prose is minimal and doesn’t waste any words or time – if you enjoy reading NPR for the prose, this may be more up your alley. 

The Undefeated is a short novel at only 112 pages. I think that if this had been fleshed out to a 300-400 page book, it would have worked better. Including more detail about the main character’s career as a journalist (or better yet, having her act as a journalist during the upcoming jenjer war!), adding a jenjer point of view, and providing more information on the rebellion would have made this a more compelling story. As it is, the novel simply lacks both soul and substance.

Thank you to the publisher for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

Goodreads | Bookshop.org

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About the Author

Dr Una McCormack is a New York Times bestselling science fiction author. She is passionate about women’s writing, science fiction, and helping people find their words and voices. Her latest release, the Star Trek: Picard novel The Last Best Hope, became a USA Today bestseller.

Learn about her books, other works, and how you can work with Una as your writing mentor for stories or novels.

Una is well known for her TV tie-in work. She has published more than a dozen novels set in franchises such as Doctor WhoStar Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Discovery. Her audio work with Big Finish has been set in licensed properties such as Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.

Her shorter-form science fiction has appeared in anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois and Ian Whates. Her story ‘Taking Flight’ (2017) was shortlisted for the BSFA award for short fiction, and her novel Star Trek: Discovery – The Way to the Stars for a Dragon Con Award. In 2017, she was a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Una’s most recent original novella, The Undefeated, was published by Tor in 2019.

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