I’ve been meaning to check out Kameron Hurley’s recent work for a long time. I read The Mirror Empire back in 2015 and was immediately impressed by her ability to be brutal about violence and use her settings and worlds to convey sharp critiques while keeping her books fun. As I began to read more books, however, I never made my way back to her work, even though her ideas sounded intensely intriguing. Well this year, I decided to finally make time for Hurley’s work and starting with The Stars Are Legion (Legion), I made a great choice. Legion is a bombastic, weird, violent, and enheartening science fiction joyride.
Legion is a story about a society of all women, who live on living breathing shell worlds. These shell worlds are attached to each other by giant tentacles, and each world cannot survive on its own. The top of society lives near the exterior skin of these worlds, often leading raiding parties to take over and incorporate other worlds of the legion into their own. The levels below all have different cultures, understandings of the world around them and perceive their duties in different ways, scarcely believing anything exists more than two or three levels above them.
The reader follows Zan, a woman who wakes up to no memories and is immediately informed she is the savior of her people. Zan is told she will lead them to the Mokshi, a living planet that is able to escape the tendrils of the Legion and journey into space without fear of dying on it’s own. But, something is awry. As she comes to grips with her new reality and takes stock of her surroundings, she begins to get the distinct impression from the reactions and attitudes of the people around her that this has happened before. The person who feels closest to Zan, Jayd, seems to know more about Zan’s condition than she is letting on. It certainly doesn’t help that Jayd is the daughter of Empress Katazyrna, and is willing to do what is necessary to save her people. Is Zan the savior of the Katazyrna world, destined to lead them to the promised land of Mokshi, or is she just a pawn in the Empress Katazyrna’s game for more control of the Legion?
So let’s get this out of the way, I generally dislike amnesia as a form of introduction as it often feels like the easy way to hide information. Hurley manages to make the concept work, though, by both adding sinister undertones and not holding your hand when it comes to her worldbuilding. Unfortunately, I think it will lead to some readers bouncing right off, but I found it extremely compelling. Hurley gives just enough information about the world to let it build in your mind, to let the textures sink into your brain folds, and start to see it through your own eyes. The fact that everything, and I mean literally everything is made of flesh, sinew, blood and other various bodily focused materials slowly came to be realized, and it’s gross-out feel starts to subside. The lack of information dumps also allowed me to contextualize the world and think about how everything worked without it needing to be explained. I was free to think about what Hurley might be getting at by gradually fleshing out the world of the Legion. It’s an exciting form of worldbuilding that I’d love to see more of, allowing the more curious readers to really engage with the book.
While the worldbuilding, story and characters were all enjoyable and interesting in their own right, the most fascinating aspect to Hurley’s writing in this particular story is her themes. She has found a way to straddle the line of using a jackhammer on your skull to point out that there is more to the story than it’s surface presentation, while being subtle about what exactly she is trying to say. Much like the worldbuilding, she forces you as the reader to pick apart the little details, following them like a trail of breadcrumbs to the billboard at the end. She in some ways forces you to question her choices in the story, and question the systems at play. The little details aren’t interesting on their own, there is something else beyond it that makes it even more fascinating if you’re willing to ask “why?” Obviously you can read the book without tugging at those strings and still have a good time, but I strongly urge you take the opportunity to dive in.
However, while I found myself able to root out the morsels like a pig in a truffle laden forest, I do think the book requires a lot of buy-in from the reader. It’s a fast paced book that has a decent amount of action but there weren’t a whole lot of moments for reflection. There were times during dialogue heavy portions where I thought there would be a little more goading by Hurley to dig deeper into what she wants the reader to understand, but she sometimes just moves on. As I said previously, I don’t need hand holding, but at the same time, I never felt a moment where Hurley just slams the sledgehammer home to make her point. It creates an interesting dialogue with the reader, but doesn’t create a singular point of revelation in the story itself.
I had a great time reading Legion. I read the whole thing in less than two days. Hurley’s world is fascinating, allowing you question all of its details while making you think similarly about our own world. Her characters are interesting, even if they’re not super deep. Her themes run rampant, her metaphors take on new light as more and more of them are revealed. And while some people enjoy having things explained to them, I preferred Hurley’s method of letting the work speak for itself. If you’re looking for something strange, brutal, different from the science fiction you are used to, The Stars Are Legion is worth your time.
Rating: The Stars Are Legion 8.0/10
One thought on “The Stars Are Legion – Brutal and Whimsical”
Thanks for a great review, this book has been sitting on my TBR pile for a while. Please, do yourself a favour and read The Light Brigade, another Hurley’s excellent SF from 2019. Highly recommended.