‘Sisters’ a Novella with ‘Vast’ Thrills

This review is going to be short, because the book I want to talk about is short. Unlike my review, which will be a fine and serviceable discussion about the merits and flaws of the book, Lina Rather’s Sisters of the Vast Black is a lovely and dazzling piece of writing.

On an organic spaceship sailing through one of the many star systems humans have now colonized, a group of nuns each try their best to keep their vows and do the Lord’s work even in the far reaches of space. Sister Gemma tends to the ship’s biological needs, and works with Sister Lucia to try to develop a cure for the deadly ringeye virus. Sister Faustina mans the communications. Reverend Mother leads those three, along with Sisters Mary Catherine and Ewostatewos, on their interplanetary mission of peace and spiritual devotion.

But even as the sisters are united in their devotion, they have secrets of their own. Sister Gemma’s secret pen pal increasingly proves to be a temptation away from her vows. Sister Gemma, who sees each communication sent and received, knows of this—and of a few more pieces of information that could threaten the order, including the Vatican sending a new priest to lead them. And Reverend Mother, whose signing has taken the place of her silent voice for over forty years, has a secret more explosive than the rest of the sisters’ inner lives combined.

Cover of Sisters of the Vast Black, with a black backdrop and, in the foreground, green and blue swirls surrounding a greenish planet.

Firstly, this is not a religious book; it is a book about religious people in which theology is but a backdrop and a source of motivation—and conflict. The autonomy of the order, both in terms of freedom of governance within their faith and freedom from governmental intervention, is threatened in myriad ways, forcing them individually and collectively to make decisions they wouldn’t have otherwise thought practical or possible to make. This is not a political book, but those themes do ring true to portions of our world today.

Of the six nuns aboard the Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, four have fairly rich, developed characters, while the other two are left more or less in the background. I heard about Sisters of the Vast Black through the release of its sequel, Sisters of the Forsaken Stars, which, aside from having a, I think much better title, sounds fascinating and I needed to read it immediately, which is why I had to read its precursor immediately. (I finished reading Sisters of the Vast Black somewhere after midnight; before breakfast the next morning, I had purchased the sequel.) All this is to say, I am hopeful that the sequel will give more opportunity for development in those neglected areas.

To be fair, though, Sisters of the Vast Black is, as I said, a very short book—it started out life as a short story, and even in this form is a novella in three not-long chapters. Rather packs an astonishing amount of detail, worldbuilding, and characterization into this wee little volume, making it a Tardis of storytelling. I cannot wait to dive right back into the world she has created and hope I can linger a little longer there. 

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