(2020) Christopher Paolini, Tor, £20, hrdbk, 878pp, ISBN 978-1-529-04650-2
In To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, YA writer Christopher Paolini’s first leap into stories for an older audience, xenobiologist Kira Navarez gets more xeno than she bargained for as she unwittingly bonds with the alien Soft Blade, locked up for centuries for the galaxy’s own protection by aliens that mankind is soon at war with. And before there’s a second set of aliens in the fight, nightmares created, in part, from the Soft Blade itself. Can Kira defeat the nightmare Maw she feels responsible for and, in doing so, keep hold of her humanity?
All fantastic space opera – there are quirky characters, interesting shape-shifting aliens, an existential threat or two and plenty of battles in space. What works well a tight focus on Kira’s character – I’ve never read a book this length with a single point of view character – and a boundless energy – but that’s also a disadvantage because it robs the novel of depth and broad perspective. It helps, though, that Paolini has created a likeable and relatable character in Kira, though I think he’s underwritten the psychological impact being bonded with an unpredictable alien symbiote might cause, particularly one that’s killed your crewmates and your ‘fiancé’ (his words not mine. Is that a word people still use?).
What works less well is the sheer weight of this monster-sized book (and never have 881 pages felt this long). It literally took me weeks to read, and its fast pace often failed to sustain interest, particularly as many of the sequences were repetitive and plenty happens that, as one of my old writing instructors would be quick to point out, are very tangential to the causal chain. Plus there’s hand-wavey science, despite a technical appendix to explain it all (I skimmed that, just as I skimmed the other two appendices and the acknowledgements. I’ve never seen acknowledgements so long that they’ve had to be divided into part one and part two.) Plus some things aren’t even hand-wavey – how do the underdeveloped ‘nightmares’, for instance, build their spaceships (they’re supposed to be the creations of the angry/mad Maw without any science or history behind them) and why do they want to wipe out all intelligent life in the galaxy?
It’s not a bad book, but it’s not a good one either. Despite its plot shortcomings, the story at its core is engaging, but putting a box set into a single novel simply doesn’t work for me and the occasional YA touches to the writing style irritate (for instance putting onomatopoeic words like ‘crack’ in single word sentences, like I tell my Year 7 students not to do). It’s not that original, either. It feels like most of the key elements have seen an airing elsewhere. The subgenre doesn’t really lend itself to originality because it has well defined tropes (space battles, maverick Captains, hostile aliens, symbiotes, surly, battle-hardened veterans with hearts of gold), all of which are visible here. But the best writers in the field make these ideas seem fresh. In addition, the aliens, sadly, aren’t really well-developed; for the most part they remain the ‘nightmares’ or the ‘jellies’. Maybe that will come in the (inevitable) sequel.
Then there’s the ending. Hopefully not too spoiler-y to say it’s implausible and (mildly) unsatisfying, and clearly designed to set up book two. I’m not sure I have the time or energy for that, though.
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