There's no denying that Emily Devenport is a capable natural writer. In Larissa, she pulls off the harder-than-you-might-think feat of hooking you into her story from the first sentence. She also has an extraordinary gift for establishing a character and anchoring her narrative firmly to that character. It's just too damn bad that the character in question, and the story, are so unappealing. I tried to think of an appropriate word to sum up the experience of this story while I was reading it, and I kept coming up with ones like "sleazy" and "trashy." I don't particularly like either, because they're the kind of words that make you sound like some bluenosed prude. But in the case of Larissa, it isn't a moral judgment, it's just a statement of fact. This is just a typical paperback trash novel in SFnal clothing.
The title character (who, despite the cover art, is black — I don't know if this is racism on the part of Roc's art department or a reflection of wider racism in fandom that dictates a black woman on a book cover might kill sales) is a girl who grows up hard and fast on the mining planet of Hook. As a child, she witnessed the brutal murder of her mother. Rather than allowing the experience to let her grow up fearful, she becomes handy with a blade. By her teenage years she carries several. Hey, a girl's gotta know how to accessorize.
Larissa's life looks like it might be taking a turn for the better as she enters her teens. She becomes quite skilled at the games of Half-G and Double-G, which are sort of like basketball but played in the described gravity conditions. But at 16, she kills a boy who's planned to rape her, and must flee the planet. Here, where Devenport should be engendering greater sympathy for Larissa, she astoundingly undermines it completely. Larissa doesn't kill in self-defense, which would be one thing. No, she learns in advance what the boy is planning and ambushes him. That's murder any way you (pardon the pun) slice it.
On the run, Larissa takes up with a skeevy small-time drug dealer who's the grandson of a prominent politico. She becomes his lover (more accurately, his sex partner), then his bodyguard. After splitting up with him, she takes up with his equally skeevy — and stupid — rich friend, who also deals drugs but seems to have the IQ of a fruit bat. She splits when he gets into trouble with some other drug dealers, so she moves on and takes up with some more skeevy people who get her to become a professional knife fighter for sport. Celebrityhood, after a fashion, follows. Now, I don't object in principle to stories all about scumbags and lowlifes. Done well, those stories can be edgy and exciting, taking you into the proverbial dark side. Writers like Roddy Doyle (Trainspotting) and Quentin Tarantino have done such stories, and done them with wit, irony, style, panache. Devenport's simply has attitude. Her characters are no more deplorable than, say, Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction, but unlike QT, Devenport fails to give her motley crew that underlying human heart that makes you like them in spite of their amorality and overall loserhood. Indeed, most of the characters in this book are so appallingly dumb that you aren't sure at times whether what Devenport has written here is a failed actioner or a failed comedy.
The unfavorable comparison to Tarantino is apropos in more ways than one: there's nothing about Larissa that is really overtly science fictional. With some minor adjustments this could be just another 'hood story about hoods set in southern California or Miami. Turn the aliens into other ethnicities, turn Half-G into plain ol' street b-ball, and voila, you have a mainstream story about a fly girl who kicks ass and takes names. Larissa isn't punk, it's gangsta. Yes, as noted, Devenport is a readable writer. Her prose keeps the pages turning. But I just don't want to hang with these people, a'ight?