Stella Maris is a remote planet where hostile races live in peace under the unlikely shelter of a Weird portal. When the corrupt Expansion comes to ‘investigate’, deserter Yale and former slave Ashot fear the worst – knowing that the Expansion sanctioned mass murder on Braun’s World. Will the Weird keep them safe?
Star of the Sea is the fourth book in the Weird Space universe. It continues the story begun in The Baba Yaga, and it’s probably better to read that book first (although previous Weird Space books are optional for added galaxy-building). Me, I jumped straight into the universe with Star of the Sea because it sounded intriguing.
Starting here is technically feasible. The opening chapters include enough recaps to make it clear what you’ve missed, and it’s achieved without feeling like a lot of awkward exposition. As the novel is told largely from the perspective of new characters (Yale and Eileen O’Connor), there’s no sense that you should already know what they’re about. Even where characters from The Baba Yaga take centre stage (Maria, sole adult survivor of The Baba Yaga), I didn’t get the impression they had previously had starring roles.
In spite of this, my core criticism of the book is that it didn’t do the work to build its characters. This might have been forgivable if they’d been introduced in a previous volume, but as they hadn’t it just felt flimsy.
For example, Maria goes from a nervous young mother who has to be pushed into having a conversation with stand-offish Yale to leading the insurgency against the Expansion forces. That’s an awesome character arc, but it isn’t given time to breathe: we get a single scene of her nervousness at being pushed into the limelight by Ashot, and then it’s a done deal.
Worse, this happens after she’s introduced as arguably the least-trusted person on Stella Maris: the Baba Yaga and all who arrived aboard her are directly responsible for the Expansion ‘investigation’. Only Ashot considers this a good qualification (Maria is from the Expansion, so she must understand how they think). While we’re given the impression that Ashot is influential amongst the Vetch (he’s a medic), we’re repeatedly told that this is a community that needs to talk things out and hammer out accords – it doesn’t just accept what it’s told.
Ashot himself is surprisingly under-used. We meet him and Yale together, and their dynamic is brilliant: the gruff human on the run and the insightful Vetch. Sadly, they are quickly separated and while Ashot is the driving force behind much of what happens (ensuring Yale and Maria can get away from the settlement when the Expansion arrive; keeping open a secret comms channel; arranging a distraction so that Yale can off-world), he’s kept strictly in a supporting role – his heroic actions happen off-page, foregrounding the human narrative. Given the themes about racial tension this felt like a missed opportunity; I would rather have seen a story about his natural compassion and intelligence being key to unlocking the peace without the Weird influence, especially given the heavy emphasis on scientist Eileen O’Connor’s fear of the Vetch.
Instead, we get Cassandra – an impossible teenager who walks out of the hills with a mysterious mission she can’t divulge. Her quest takes centre stage and raises the stakes from planetary peace to galactic peace, with the other characters falling over themselves to enable her. In Yale’s case, this sits uncomfortably with what we otherwise see – her changes of heart are abrupt, and rely heavily on the Han Solo / Mal Reynolds trope of grumpy hardcase must surely have a heart of gold and secretly want to do the right thing. The thin hint that Yale is unreliable, using Cassandra as a smokescreen because she needs to get offworld herself, is quickly abandoned.
This brings me neatly to my second area of dissatisfaction: it’s all too easy. While the narrative works to build up a sense of paranoia and overwhelming odds, it never delivers on them. In the end, any threats faced are rapidly overcome (complete with dea ex machina devices for the finale) with practically no casualties, and the sense of inconvenient details being swept under the corner is overpowering at the end. While there’s some fun along the way – most notably watching Yale swing into competent spy mode once off Stella Maris – it’s almost sanitised matinee material. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a big fan of grimdark either, I just like victories to feel earned.
Star of the Sea begins by introducing meaty, timely themes about the freedoms a citizen is (or should be) willing to forego in the name of safety, and the difficulties of forging strong, supportive relationships in divided communities. It then fails to engage with them in any meaningful way: Stella Maris turns out to be entirely reliant on the Weird to stop the races turning on one another (sorry guys, stop holding out any hope for us solving our own problems); the Expansion force on-planet is only corrupt because certain factions are being controlled by evil mind parasites (don’t worry folks, the one named casualty wasn’t really killed by our own kind); and the machinery of evil empire dissolves when it realises it’s been used to commit mass murder (I’ll believe Adelaide Grant has an awful sort of integrity, but this still feels hard to believe).
What a waste.
That said, I don’t want to give the impression that this is an irretrievable mess or that I hated it. I didn’t. There’s plenty to enjoy here if you’re looking for empty calories – a fast-paced plot, likeable characters and an intriguing setting. As an added bonus, it’s propelled by capable female protagonists, there’s the merest hint one of them may be gay (although only the merest hint; don’t expect validation) and the anti-doomsday device literally spreads love and understanding. Awww.
Don’t think too hard about it, don’t ask too much of it, and it’s on par with an unexpectedly gender-swapped popcorn movie on a Saturday night. I just prefer something I can chew.
I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Previously published at The Speculative Herald.