STARS AND BONES by Gareth L Powell (BOOK REVIEW)
“I am the storm. I am the consciousness. I am the one who travels alone.”
Stars and Bones
Gareth L. Powell – Coming March 1st 2022 from Titan and AVAILABLE TO ORDER HERE
Gareth L. Powell writes science fiction about extraordinary characters wrestling with the question of what it means to be human.
He has won and been shortlisted for several major awards and his Embers of War novels are currently being adapted for TV.
You may recognise the name Gareth L. Powell, for his BSFA Award winning alt-history cyberpunk-style novel Ack-Ack Macaque, or his ridiculously good space opera series Embers of War. With his latest novel, Stars and Bones, Powell has stepped out onto the platform labelled: nuanced brilliance. Delicately weaving together aspects of Science Fiction that we can do nothing but enjoy. Including elements of Uplift Fiction, Space Opera, and so much more. Gareth offers us an intricately designed narrative littered with gorgeous human experience, realistic characters and talking cats. The emotions of this text are what pack the hardest punch, from the moment you start to read and learn about humans living amongst the stars, Powell offers you grief, regret, and curiosity by the spoonful. You are immediately sucked into the lives of our apparent ‘descendants’ who have been plucked from Earth, and forced to live on giant spaceships, doomed to wonder space for all eternity.
“We’ve been cast out of Eden again,”
“We’ve sinned and been exiled.”
Doomsday prepper, Haruki, is one of the richest men in the world. He is tending his tomato plants in an underground facility when he gets the news; ‘They’ve launched nukes.’ Hilariously, ‘the British Prime Minister made a joke about pressing the button. He didn’t realise his mike was hot,’ so the other countries retaliated. A poignant nod at how the British government often speak without thinking, as well as a truly eloquent allusion to the lack of confidence Brits have had in our own government in recent months. Haruki was building an underground bunker as a sanctuary for himself, close friends, and key employees to sit out ‘Doomsday,’ in relative comfort, no matter the cause. This is where he heard the news that the End was extremely Neigh. But it was too late. The moment was here and now there was no time to gather those he had chosen to save. There is nothing to do but steady himself for impact… but it never comes. Something stops the nukes… or someone.
‘Now, seventy-five years after our salvation, most humans lived their entire lives aboard the Thousand Arks of the Continuance’
Set 75 years after ‘Doomsday’ was avoided, the narrative follows substrate navigator Eryn and her ship The Ocelot, as they try to find out what has happened to Eryn’s sister Shay. Shay went missing on her last trip out, which seemed to be an exploration assignment, and Eryn has pulled as many strings as possible to be allowed to find out the truth of what happened. No one, including you dear reader, could have predicted the absolutely chaotic adventure that ensues.
‘’Substrate navigation relied as much on intuition as calculation. And while ships such as the Ocelot could think considerably faster than the average human, they were still just glorified computers.’
To avoid too many spoilers, I want to highlight the beauty in Powell’s novel. Whilst the narrative is stitched together with grief and existential dread, there are several beautiful and passionate scenes that simply must have been inspired by Powell’s own great romance, with fellow SFF writer J. Dianne Dotson. Anyone active on Twitter will have witnessed their wholesome romance blossoming, something so pure one cannot ignore it. Powell builds an uncannily realistic and raw romance between Eryn and a passenger of the Ocelot, one that shines and reflects his own.
“I was starting to realise she meant more to me than just a shipboard fling. I enjoyed her company. I liked having someone to hold and talk to in the dark – and I mean really talk. We were still physically shy and awkward (at least, I was), but I’d shared more of my inner self with her over the past few days than I’d ever shared with anyone”
The descriptions of love Powell uses are familiar and warm, evoking images of passion and bliss.
“There are just some people who come into your life and blow it wide open. There’s no explanation for it. There’s just something about them that turns you the fuck on. You feel like you’ve known them forever, or maybe you knew them in a past life, and just hearing them speak makes the back of your neck shiver like an unexpected caress.”
An undeniable, autofictional addition to his text. That mere quotations can never do justice.
“I don’t know if it was pheromones or voodoo or something else but sitting here close to her felt like setting next to the life I was supposed to be living. I hardly knew her, but she felt like home.”
The smallest thing about someone can be everything, as anyone in love well knows. Whether it is the look in their eyes, the catch in their throat when they laugh, or the smell of their hair, and Powell picks up on this in his description of Eryn and her love.
“Something about the smell of her hair let me know I wasn’t alone; I was exactly where I was supposed to be.”
Another glorious aspect of Stars and Bones, is my favourite character; Sam.
“The ship’s cat claimed not to be able to remember his original name, so I just called him Sam.”
Although the entity that removed humans from Earth, nicknamed ‘Raijin’ for one of the eldest gods in the Shinto religion, stole everyone from their home planet:
‘It understood how much humans needed the companionship of other animals. Most species were left on the Earth to recover and thrive without us endangering them, but we’d been selectively breeding dogs and cats for thousands of years. […] to make sure we never forget to treat our fellow creatures with respect, Raijin imbued the cats and dogs with speech, via the collars they all wore, and were not somehow born with.’
Although we do not meet many of these uplifted companions, Sam lives on the Ocelot, so we are offered a fun insight into what living with a talking cat would be like. Powell really captures the essence of ‘cat,’ and how one might imagine they would talk and behave if they were offered human style sentience and speech.
‘The cat hopped up onto the arm of my couch, and started purring and nuzzling my shoulder. “is it food time yet, darling?”’
From intricate belief systems, historical influence (such as The Ship of Theseus) and constructed communities, Powell’s novel screams of authenticity and genius. I appreciated the slight and distant echoes of some of my favourite books, such as Adam Robert’s Bete and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Space Opera Children of Ruin. Throughout the novel Powell names each ship/ark after something cultural and/or relevant to humanity such as the Great Barrier Reef. Powell makes a small nod of acknowledgement to fellow SFF writer Tchaikovsky by naming one of the Arks after him (confirmed by Powell on Twitter 16/02/2022). It truly is wonderful that Powell garnishes his text with fragments from his own life, professionally and personally. It adds something familial and human, that we might not always expect with Sci-Fi dealing with realities so defamiliarised from our own.
Powell’s novel is a must read for anyone who loves a bit of mystery sprinkled into their Science Fiction. Fans of Tchaikovsky, or novels involving humanity living out in space will be pleased (as I am) with this narrative. Whilst many Space Opera texts might leave room for an ambiguous or amorphous second novel, I doubt that is possible with Stars and Bones, although I would definitely ravage it should a sequel emerge. I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys Science Fiction, as there is a little bit of something in Stars and Bones for everyone.