Sisters of the Vast Black follows nuns traveling aboard a living spaceship that can mate and produce baby spaceships. Yes, you read that correctly. Lina Rather’s debut novella follows a crew of sisters from the Order of Saint Rita as they journey through space, responding to calls for help from newly established colonies. The cast of characters includes the enigmatic Reverend Mother, whose vow of silence keeps her mysterious past shrouded, the pragmatic Sister Faustina, the pious Sister Lucia, and Sister Gemma, who pines for a life outside the Order.
Set in the future after an apocalyptic interplanetary war, Rather’s novella ambitiously tackles theology, personal faith crises, centralized governance, the sentience of creatures, bioengineering, sexuality, sin, and redemption—all in 160 pages.
Due to the novella’s brevity, it’s initially difficult to distinguish one character from another. But as each sister’s history and secrets are revealed, it’s easier to determine how a character’s past influences their actions. Pacing issues parallel the initial muddied characterizations in the beginning, and much of the world-building occurs through dialogue between characters rather than through the narrative. During the first half of the novella, we hear foreboding secondhand accounts of an Earth-based Central Governance trying to resume control of the galaxy by using the far-reaching arm of the Catholic Church. But since we don’t meet anyone from the Central Governance or the Church until later, the sisters’ main threat appears nebulous.
Fortunately, Rather ties everything together with dazzling mastery in the novella’s second half. The time she invests in the characters during quiet moments pays off as a series of plot twists and reveals propel the narrative forward at breakneck speed. Here, it’s the sisters themselves who carry the plot, as they grapple with living out their personal faith against the threat of another war and the tightening grip of the Church. Rather also introduces Father Giovanni and Central Governance soldiers, who are both too young and too blind to see the insidious schemes of the organizations to which they’re so devoted. By the time the antagonists gain faces, their destructive corruption seems that much more terrifying due to the secondhand rumors that preceded their appearance.
Even as Rather raises the story’s stakes to concern the fate of the whole galaxy, the narrative remains intensely personal and focused on the individual sisters. The story’s heart lies in the sisters’ community formed within the flesh walls of their spaceship and in their struggles in remaining faithful to themselves, each other, and the Church. By the hopeful and open-ended conclusion, you’ll be left wanting to spend more time with Rather’s characters.
Sisters of the Vast Black doesn’t shy away from the big themes despite its small package, and it will successfully whet the appetite of anyone looking for a fresh take on the space opera genre.
Jane Huang is a neuroscience PhD student by day and a freelance writer by night. She currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA.