To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars by Christopher Paolini—Book Review
Published by: Tor
Genre: sci-fi, space opera
Review Copy Courtesy of Tor and Stephen Haskins. Thanks!
A hardback copy of Christopher Paolini’s first work of science fiction has been waiting for me since late September. There’s good reason for that—it’s a novel daunting in its size, a near nine-hundred-page tome that could be used as a blunt instrument of death with the aid of gravity and a pinch of murderous intent. Such a book demands a level of time investment that isn’t always available—how lucky, then, that my holiday break is in full swing!
First thing first: To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars goes by fast, as all good brick-sized books should. I found it immensely easy to get through, owed to its likeable protagonist, Kira Navárez. The story opens in far-off 2257, two centuries into humanity’s expansion beyond our own Solar system. Kira is a xenobiologist working at a far-off outpost meant to assess the habitability of the planet Adrasteia. For Kira and the team she’s part of, this is the latest in a series of such assignments; this one in particular is coming to an end, which means uncertainty in what’s next for Kira and her significant other, Alan, a geologist on the same assignment. The two are making plans for the future, bold and filled with hope—and then, on the morning before they depart for corporate HQ, Kira does a routine check-up that leads her to the discovery of every xenobiologist’s dreams—a structure of intelligent design, ancient beyond reckoning. A dream that turns to nightmare as soon as the ancient dust resting on a pedestal within the structure begins to infest all-too-curious Kira.
After an opening that’s ever-so-reminiscent of Alien, the book’s pacing moves at breakneck speed, interposing action with character moments; early on, Kira makes her way to the Wallfish, a rust bucket of a ship whose crew is a smorgasbord of fun characters, led by captain Salvo Falconi, the man with the worst sense of humour in colonized space. Oh, the puns on the Wallfish, the puns!
The science of FTL travel here is your run-of-the-mill, well-explained, “bendy-but-not-outright-breaky” stuff that you want in a space opera; plenty of cryo-sleep, ships capable of generating gravitation fields, that sort of thing. There’s a whole lot of technology that comes from a precursor ancient civilization that once spanned parts of the galaxy, which adds a good bit of mystery to the proceedings. Old ideas, most of these ; what was done particularly well—an interesting twist on an old idea, I found—was the notion of “ship minds,” which is far more engaging than your average ship AI.
Most space operas adopt multiple points of view to draw as full. Not so with A Sea of Stars, which instead never ventures outside the perceptions of Kira Navárez and her xeno symbiote. I use symbiote here because I can’t fail to mention how much I was reminded of the Venom symbiote of Marvel/Spider-Man fame, especially in the application of the Soft Blade (that’s its name). But these visual similarities go only skin-deep (heh). The xeno has so much more in its sleeves than spikes and blades and a healing factor that would make Deadpool wince—just you wait and see!
But to return to the singular point of view; Paolini does an excellent job of selling the setting to the reader through Kira’s eyes. It’s a bit of tunnel vision, infested as it is by Kira’s worry and guilt and feeling of responsibility, to the point that I didn’t get as clear a view of the world as I would’ve liked. That’s a trade-off Paolini was comfortable with; for all its high stakes, this is a far more intimate story than something like Pandora’s Star, which is my personal
As Paolini himself admits in the “Afterword,” this is an imperfect work. I had some issues with it, which I’d be doing a disservice not to mention to any potential reader. Many of the supporting characters, especially servicemen and officers at the UMC (the interstellar military/navy of the biggest human government, the League) are interchangeable. They speak and sound and act so very much like one another, it’s strange. Further, virtually all of them speak like modern-day US military personnel—in exactly the way you think they would, a kind of hard-boiled, no-nonsense military speak you’ve come across in every action flick ever. Is that the norm? Has that always been a part of space operas based in the future of our own world and society? Have I become more sensitive to it? I’m not entirely sure, but one way or another, I do not like it.
By contrast, other turns of phrase had a very strong sense of Being Written By A Fantasy Author: “Go now, and know this: no matter where time or fate may take us, I consider you my friends”. It’s not so much the content as it is the presentation—and it’s not a prevailing, common thing. When it happens, every once in a while…you might take notice, as I did.
Is this nitpicking? I don’t think so—while some of this is a matter of taste, there are some legitimate concerns I believe I’ve brought on—you tell me. Are these issues easy to overlook? Yes, very much so. The truth of the matter is, Paolini’s work is beyond enjoyable; though this one never quite managed to surprise me with its twists and turns, I wasn’t bored for a moment. My investment in Kira’s journey was well-rewarded and I do not, for a second, regret spending the hours I did with her and the crew of the Wallfish.
It might not be the kind of science fiction that’ll expand your horizons or shock you with a stark new vision of humanity’s tomorrow, but it offers the thrills and joys characteristic to the very best examples of the subgenre. This might just be the perfect read for anyone inexperienced with space opera—though I finished this mammoth of a book, I am hungry for more; more of the action, camaraderie, and mystery that works such as this can offer. Knowing how many people loved the Inheritance Cycle, I suspect that some fantasy fans of the Inheritance Cycle who don’t normally have much interest in all things space-faring might be won over by Paolini; this might be a gateway to an entire new genre for those lucky readers!