This is a wonderful little book – I pre-ordered it on a whim, mainly because I’ve found Carriger’s writing entertaining before and I’m always interested to see takes on alien gender and sexuality. I didn’t expect it to be as sweet and adorable as it in fact was, and despite a few tragic revelations it made for wonderful fluff-reading – exactly what you want after a rough day at work when the 600-page-epic-fantasy-tome just feels like more work, and uncomplicated escapism is a nice warm bubble-bath.
If anything, 5th Gender is slightly too simplistic to be ideal (at least for me), but it’s entertaining enough for me to forgive it for that. It’s more of a romance than a murder mystery, but to be honest that was a relief, since I’m not great with investigative stories; and if the romance was maybe not the most realistic, well – it does make much more sense within the context of the story, and it’s cute and sweet enough that I was willing to suspend my disbelief and go with it.
Tris is – biologically at least; we’ll get to that – a male loga, which in human terms means he presents as male, has a male-analogous form, and uses male pronouns; he is, however, capable of becoming pregnant, which is hugely relevant to the story in the sense that reproductive capability is of supreme importance to the galoi, the alien race to which he belongs. And he is super adorable. If you imagine a Labrador puppy turned into a purple humanoid, you’ve pretty much got the idea; Tris is sweet, kind, curious about everything, quick to joy, and pretty hyper. He’s kept from being an annoying cliche, though, by the flashes of fascinating anger, moments of intense introspection, and complicated feelings towards the world that exiled him. The first bit of the book, before we learn why he was exiled, is kind of puzzling, in that I at least spent quite a while wondering what on Earth someone like this could have done to deserve total and permanent exile. Usually that kind of thing is reserved for the worst kind of crimes, right? And this is a guy who always forgets his chopsticks and is convinced the space station janitors are priests of a secret and sacred cult. To repeat: he’s adorable. What could he have done?
Drey, aka Detective Hastion (whom Tris is totally crushing on) is a human security/police officer in a far-future space station. He, like everyone else, also finds Tris adorable, and is in fact crushing on Tris right back (not, of course, that either of them realise the feeling’s mutual. Dorks.) But as far as he knows, galoi are promiscuous and polyamorous, and he knows he’s not up to sharing. So a secret his feelings will remain!
Except not, obviously.
The two are brought into close contact (ahem) when a galoi ship seeks permission to dock and request the services of a detective – someone has been murdered on their ship, but the thing is, galoi don’t kill each other. They do not, as the blurb points out, even have a word for murder. Hence why they need human assistance – despite the fact that they’re the most xenophobic aliens anyone has ever heard of, and this kind of contact between galoi and ‘outsiders’ is unprecedented. Obviously, Drey’s going to need a cultural translator.
The thing is – Tris is zyga. This is somehow connected to his exile – it’s the surname all galoi exiles take when they leave the homeworld, not that there’s many of them who leave. And among other things, it means that the galoi on the ship won’t even acknowledge that he exists.
So there’s a murder mystery, which mostly serves as a reason to push Tris and Drey together while exploring and explaining galoi culture. Functionally, it reads as an m/m romance, with some alien-biology tropes that makes the sex go more smoothly (and for those wondering, Drey is extremely relieved to discover that he cannot get Tris pregnant.) Carriger makes full, unapologetic use of the Alien card to justify all the sex, all the cuddliness, and even Tris’ sweet nature, and I have no bones with any of that. Loga evolved to be super tactile, extra-adorable, and have high sex-drives, you say? Then I can only respond with: bravo. Take your tropes and run with ’em!
It’s not all fluffy feels and smexing, though. Deep and complicated emotions are at the heart of this story, giving it a poignancy that will ensure I remember this one for a long time, and that make it stand out from the crowd. There’s also some incredibly interesting world-building – while I found the galoi utterly fascinating, I was also impressed by how sneakily Carriger managed to drop hints about how humanity’s been faring since they left the ‘Hu-Core’, aka little ol’ Earth. Even if I wasn’t eager to see more of Tris and Drey, I’d hope for more books just to explore this galaxy Carriger’s created.
I do hope any future books are a bit better edited, however. There were more than a few cases of accidental homophone usage, which made me wince. I also didn’t especially enjoy the sex scenes, but that I think is down to personal preference; I’m sure there are plenty of other readers who enjoyed (or will enjoy) them a lot.
And while I can’t say too much without spoilers, I think Carriger did an excellent job of creating – and conveying – zyga as an identity; the eponymous 5th gender of the title. It’s incredibly important to Tris, the story, and his culture, and I found it deeply moving. It’s a really beautiful concept/identity, one that hearkens to the roles queer people have held in many different cultures, and especially the minor revelation of the last few pages just took my breath away. Of all the reasons I’d love to read more books in this universe, the major one is that I dearly want to follow Tris in his journey as zyga.
And somehow, I don’t think Drey will have too much trouble keeping up with him!