Title: In the Quick
Author: Kate Hope Day
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: March 2, 2021
Print length: 251 pages
Genre: Science fiction
June is a brilliant but difficult girl with a gift for mechanical invention who leaves home to begin grueling astronaut training at the National Space Program. Younger by two years than her classmates at Peter Reed, the school on campus named for her uncle, she flourishes in her classes but struggles to make friends and find true intellectual peers. Six years later, she has gained a coveted post as an engineer on a space station—and a hard-won sense of belonging—but is haunted by the mystery of Inquiry, a revolutionary spacecraft powered by her beloved late uncle’s fuel cells. The spacecraft went missing when June was twelve years old, and while the rest of the world seems to have forgotten the crew, June alone has evidence that makes her believe they are still alive.
She seeks out James, her uncle’s former protégé, also brilliant, also difficult, who has been trying to discover why Inquiry’s fuel cells failed. James and June forge an intense intellectual bond that becomes an electric attraction. But the relationship that develops between them as they work to solve the fuel cell’s fatal flaw threatens to destroy everything they’ve worked so hard to create—and any chance of bringing the Inquiry crew home alive.
A propulsive narrative of one woman’s persistence and journey to self-discovery, In the Quick is an exploration of the strengths and limits of human ability in the face of hardship, and the costs of human ingenuity.
I’m not going to lie — I book this book on a whim based solely and completely on the fact that the pink astronaut cover grabbed my attention in a bookstore and wouldn’t let me walk away!
Much to my surprise, while In the Quick is a science fiction book about a young engineering prodigy whose obsessive need to understand the why of things leads her into a fiercely competitive astronaut program and ultimately, into interplanetary exploration… it’s also a retelling of Jane Eyre. How wild is that?
In In the Quick, June’s beloved uncle, a renowned pioneer in spaceship engineering, dies when June is twelve. He raised her to think, to question, to seek answers, and she delighted in hovering in the background while his students worked with him on challenging prototypes and design projects. But after his death, June is lost in her aunt’s house, unloved and misunderstood — and when the spaceship Inquiry goes dark after a fuel cell failure, June’s worldview is thrown into chaos.
The fuel cells were her uncle’s greatest achievement. What could have gone wrong, and why? Even past the point when the world seems to have concluded that the Inquiry and its crew are lost, June is compelled to seek answers. She soon enrolls at the National Space Program school, determined to forge a path for herself that takes her into space and gives her the knowledge to understand and unravel the mysteries of the failed fuel cells.
June’s journey ultimately takes her to a moon called the Pink Planet, where swirling silt creates a permanently pink atmosphere, and where exposure to the silt results in a hallucinogenic, numbed state. The Pink Planet is an outpost developed as a jumping off point for the vast voyages intended for the Inquiry and its sister ship, but once the Inquiry mission failed, the Pink Planet stations were left in a state of minimal use and shocking disrepair. Once on the Pink Planet, June reconnects with her uncle’s former student James, who is similarly obsessed with June’s uncle’s work. Together, they begin an intense creative phase to finally solve the puzzle of the fuel cells… and to figure out if there truly is any hope still of finding the Inquiry after all this time.
In the Quick is a fairly short book, and it’s a quick read. It’s oddly compelling — the forays into engineering and design are kept to lightly descriptive passages, so the science is never overwhelming for those of us without advanced degrees. The story of June’s growth and education is interesting, although she’s a somewhat hard character to love. We don’t get very deep into her inner life, apart from her never-satisfied quest for knowledge. We know she experiences loss and loneliness, but the friendships she forms along her journey always feel secondary to her scientific obsession.
It’s entertaining to see the Jane Eyre storylines woven into In the Quick. We’re not beaten over the head with them — if someone reading In the Quick hasn’t read Jane Eyre, they’re not going to feel lost or confused in any way. Instead, there are some basic patterns and motifs built into the story (I had to giggle over the opening scene of June reading a book while hidden away in a window seat), and it’s surprising to see how well it all works in a novel of space exploration and interplanetary travel!
I did find the overall plot to have a somewhat flat effect by the end. There are pieces that are never fully explained — in fact, given how central the Pink Planet is to the story, I don’t believe we’re ever told where it is. We know that it’s a moon, despite being named the Pink Planet, but a moon of what?
The book ends, in my opinion, on a very abrupt note, and left me feeling frustrated. Without saying exactly what the ending is, I’ll just say that I wanted more explained about what had transpired over the years since the Inquiry was lost. June’s obsession with the Inquiry leads to her conviction that the crew was still out there somewhere, alive but unable to power their ship or communicate — but if that’s true, how did they survive all these years? The lack of an explanation felt very unsatifsying to me.
If I had to categorize this book, I’d describe it as “literary science fiction”. It’s an interesting, ambitious novel, with themes of classic literature woven into a space story. Overall, I enjoyed reading In the Quick, but for me, I prefer my sci-fi with a lot clearer grounding in the science of it all. I want to understand the details and marvel at how a work of fiction can make it all seem possible. In the Quick is more about the moods and passions and human drives involved, and while it was a good read, it wasn’t 100% my style of science fiction.
Still, I’m glad I gave in to the impulse to grab a copy! In a year where much of my reading is planned well in advance, it was a treat to read on a whim and experience something unexpected. Jane Eyre in space? Well, that was definitely a new, unexpected twist for me, and I’m happy that I gave it a chance.