Fiction Reviews

These Burning Stars

(2023) Bethany Jacobs, Orbit, £9.99, pbk, ISBN 978-0-356-52007-0


Bethany Jacobs is on record as saying she tried to write a story about space pirates, and These Burning Stars was the result. And while pirates do feature, this debut does not place them front and centre.

What the novel does instead is to channel the spirit of adventure and intrigue that one might expect from that starting point into a remarkably well done piece of space opera, the first of a planned trilogy.

Jun Ironway, hacker and outlaw (not a pirate, although she certainly has some piratical traits), acquires valuable data linked with the Nightfoot family, one of the ruling houses of the Treble. These three star systems are dominated by a combination of a corporate oligarchy and an authoritarian religion called the Kindom.

No sooner does Jun have the information in her grasp than sheís on the run from the authorities, helped by her lover as well as a bona fide pirate with his own interest in the goods and a buyer in mind. Two members of the Kindom Ė including a member of the Nightfoot family Ė and their minions follow them in hot pursuit.

But these clerics Ė Esek Nightfoot and her reluctant sidekick Chono Ė also have their own agenda. In the sudden appearance of the data they see the hand of a shadowy figure known only as Six, someone with whom they share a bloody history. As the novelís timeline skips between the present and the past back to cover that Six and Esekís back-story, whatís really going on becomes slowly apparent.

Intrigue, mystery, pursuit, narrow escapes, betrayal and revenge Ė these are the currencies that These Burning Stars deals in. The mood it evokes is rather Three Musketeers by way of Mos Eisley, a little Scaramouche in space. With that in mind itís unsurprising to hear itís a fast paced and entertaining read, with appropriately frothy yet detailed world-building.

The ace in the hole of stories like this is often the villain, and Esek Nightfoot joins a long line of beloved monsters in this genre. Sheís a scenery-chewing villain who gets all the best lines, but who is also a rich and complex character who inspires loyalty and fascination in those around her, sometimes even love. Since thatís essential for These Burning Stars to work, this centres the novel rather than unbalancing it.

And yet Bethany Jacobs isnít content with just telling a first rate yarn here, though in that sheís certainly successful. In less skilled hands adding more serious themes (including a subplot about resource exploitation and attempted genocide) would be outright folly but she pulls it off, adding to the richness of the story.

I have to say, These Burning Stars is probably the most fun Iíve had reading a new book in the past year. This traditional SF swashbuckler updated for the twenties has panache, narrative momentum and depth, and sometimes thatís what I need more than the next big idea blowing my mind.

Itís a hugely assured first effort and looking forward to the next part of the trilogy.

Tim Atkinson


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