I’m catching up with reviews of some recent(ish) YA releases at the moment, and this one has been in my to-review list for ages…
Commander Romy Silvers is the only remaining crewmember of the spaceship Infinity, travelling to a distant planet on a mission to establish a new colony, Earth II.
Then she learns that a new ship, The Eternity, has been launched and will join her – and on it is one passenger, named J. Their messages take months to transfer across the vast expanse of space, but Romy holds on to the hope that when J arrives, everything will be different. If she can keep her increasingly eerie ship running that long…
I love Lauren James’ books. Her début The Next Together (“charming, ambitious and surprising, once you’re hooked, you won’t want to put it down”) and second novel The Last Beginning (“Funny, chaotic and full of adventure… throws its arms around things like anomalies and paradoxes and says if there’s one there may as well be a hundred”) are among some of my go-to YA recommendations. They’ve got so much going on: time travel, science fiction, historical fiction, alternate universes, starcrossed romance, LGBTQ+ characters, action sequences, humour, post-it notes, powerpoints, KNITTING.
The Loneliest Girl In The Universe, James’ first novel not centred on rule-breaking gay time travellers the Finchley-Galloway-Sutcliffes (still need a collective noun for them), is a very different type of book. Where The Next Together is warm and messy, The Loneliest Girl is all cool tones and clean lines. Where Kate and Matthew are ridiculous and adorkable, Romy and J are single-minded and mysterious. If The Next Together and The Last Beginning draw on a remarkable array of interests and genres, then The Loneliest Girl in the Universe is almost microscopic in its focus. Set entirely onboard a spaceship – with the exception of Romy’s fan fiction sequences – it’s James’ most high-concept sci-fi book to date (with a cover to match). Short, sharp, and efficient, The Loneliest Girl packs quite a punch.
The first person born in space, teenager Romy is the only person left to pilot her ship, The Infinity, to its planned destination: a new colony for Earth. When she hears that another ship – newer, faster, and with its own passenger – is being sent to join her, she leaps at the prospect of renewed human contact. But a long, slow, perilous journey across the vastness of space is starting to take its toll on an increasingly desperate Romy and on The Infinity. Scientifically smart but incredibly naive, Romy may have the resourcefulness to keep her ship running, but to her, other humans may as well as be aliens.
The Loneliest Girl takes an atmospheric approach to a sinister plot, with intense action and some calamitous twists. This is sci-fi with a thriller edge, and I’ll admit I had my reservations as while I occasionally read science fiction, thriller is not a genre I usually go for. If it had strayed into horror, it would have been a definite no from me. As it was, I can’t say it’s book I enjoyed exactly – it’s just too tense and creepy! – but I can see why fans of the genre would be surprised and thrilled by it. There was a lack of logic to some of the back-story and the suspension of disbelief required throughout is considerable, but it achieves much of what it sets out to do, with a highly concentrated narrative and razor-sharp neatness.
It’s great to see an author challenge themselves so much with their third book. Rather than fall into a comfortable pattern, Lauren James has really flexed her talents and shown her versatility here, taking a cut-glass look at unhealthy relationships in ways I haven’t often seen done in YA and tackling space travel as a psychological experience as well as a physical one. And the bamboozling thing is, you get the sense that this is still just a fraction of what she can do. The prose is accessible, at times cinematic, conjuring the surrounds of The Infinity and making particularly brilliant use of fan fiction. Romy’s fandom centres on a fictional pair of TV detectives, a banshee and a selkie respectively, who team up as Loch & Ness. Her fics serve both as brief respite for the reader and character insight for the narrative, and in fact, I probably would’ve read even more of it. Clocking in at a pacy 290 pages, if you like sleek YA sci-fi – perhaps without the heft of Illuminae or the romances of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles – then The Loneliest Girl in the Universe may be for you.
Short, sharp and suspenseful, Lauren James’ third novel is her most focused, and darkest, yet. I still prefer the cosiness of The Next Together and the LGBTQ+ characters of The Last Beginning, but that’s not what this book sets out to be. You’ll find effective, pacy sci-fi with a knock-out twist here. Ambitious, versatile stuff.