Max Seventeen by Kate Johnson

Max Seventeen is a science fiction romance that has a lot of problematic elements (several of which ambushed me near the end of the book). On the other hand, it has an action heroine of color, a rickety spaceship with a motley (and diverse) crew, and mosasaurs. Once I started the book I couldn’t stop reading it, and every time I said to myself, “Wait, WHAT?” another mosasaur or some other shiny plot device popped up to distract me.

Our story begins with a trial and a heist.

Our heroine, Max, is busted for various crimes and sentenced to one year of slavery. She winds up shoveling fuel into a train engine. Meanwhile, our hero, Riley, signs on to a rickety spaceship (the Eurydice) as engineer in order to escape from being a soldier with The Service, a military group. After Riley and the rest of the crew rob the same train that Max is on, Max ends up on the Eurydice as Riley’s property. It’s all very complicated, but basically, there are technical reasons why Riley can’t free Max until her year of servitude is over. The ensuing plot includes, but is not limited to:

  • Found family
  • A lot of explicit sex and violence
  • Dry humor
  • Competence porn
  • Potentially triggery descriptions of child abuse and rape
  • Children, mosasaurs, and many adults in peril
  • Discussion about consent
  • The defeat of a massive conspiracy
  • A plot twist I truly did not see coming

The first two-thirds of the book contain some content that I was ambivalent about. I honestly could not tell if this book is sex-positive or slut shaming. Sometimes Max’s joyful tendency to sleep with every willing person she can find comes across as a celebration of her agency and seize the day mentality, but she also worries that people see her as a toy, and her eventual decision to be monogamous is portrayed as a sign of her increasing self-esteem. Sometimes sex work is portrayed sympathetically, but sex workers are also portrayed as disloyal and dishonest (although frankly, so is everyone else).

The book does a better job when it comes to the problem of power imbalance between Riley and Max. Riley refuses to have sex with Max for quite a while because even though he is only Max’s owner in the technical sense he still (rightly, in my opinion) believes that Max can’t truly consent because of the power imbalance. When they finally do have sex, Max has consented verbally and specifically over and over again, but she calls Riley out later when he refers to them as equals. While Max insists that she has enough agency and control to honestly consent to sex, she also points out that as long as Riley owns her she can’t be, and isn’t, his equal in their relationship. Although they establish a relationship while she’s still serving out her sentence as a slave, there’s always an understanding that they won’t, and can’t have a true HEA until she’s free.

One of the interesting things about these characters is that Riley has been both falsely accused of rape (one of my least favorite tropes EVER) and a victim of rape. He was raped by a female military superior who threatened to ruin his career if he didn’t sleep with her. Meanwhile, Max is the survivor of a rape in which she was physically overpowered. Given their experiences, it makes sense that Riley is so alert to the idea of rape stemming from an abuse of power whereas Max is comfortable with power structures (she ignores them) as long as she feels physically safe.

In the last third of the book, a few of my very least favorite tropes pop up out of nowhere and Riley acts like a jerk. Seriously, it’s as though a different author jumps in, seizes the story for about 50 pages, and then jumps back out. Spoilers regarding Riley’s behavior:

Show Spoiler
Riley figures out that Max is pregnant before she does. She has an abortion and he is furious that she didn’t consult him.  Then he pulls a power play with regard to owning her.

Just as I was about to toss the book aside, we suddenly find ourselves in a science fiction Regency novel and of course I had to see how that went. Everything sort of magically resolves itself, and there’s going to be a sequel which I will inevitably read in one glorious, confusing day. The sequel, Firebrand, came out on July 4, 2017.

Clearly I had a rocky journey with this book, and yet it’s amazingly fun. There’s constant action and intrigue. Max and Riley are both very good at what they do (she’s a programmer and he’s an engineer). There’s a wild, madcap quality to the story, fueled by Max’s high energy, her unpredictable behavior, and the science fiction setting, which is like a crazed mash-up of Firefly, The Expanse, Mad Max, and Pirates of the Caribbean. There’s a ton of humor, from slapstick to wry, like Max’s lament when she realizes she’s about to be fed to a mosasaur:

“Fuck it! I was going to die old, in bed, surrounded by five young men.”

In case you are wondering about the mosasaurs Max later explains:

Actually, interesting biological sidebar, apparently they aren’t mosasaurs, really, because they died out on earth millions of years ago, but no one knows what they are so that’s what they call them.

I read this book in May and for various reasons I didn’t sit down to review it for several weeks. What stuck in my head weeks after finishing the book was the character of Max careening defiantly through life. Max is hyper-vigilant, violent, uncouth, and wonderful. She’s determined to enjoy life even though she has suffered. Even though she and Riley get a happy ending, they also both have serious issues that they will probably always need to deal with, and I found that to be realistic and honest. She has a shaved head and when Riley first meets her she’s covered in sewage and yet she is irresistible (after having had a bath) because she has so much energy.

I loved this character and I enjoyed the book, even though I’m still not sure if it was a liberating read or problematic as hell. Am giving it a C for the major problems that I couldn’t escape, such as the inconsistent portrayal of sex workers and of Riley’s attitude in the last third of the book, but a ‘+’ for solid and energetic writing and a fun, creative, exciting story.

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