Last year I read Light Chaser, a collaboration between Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell, and it birthed a desire to give Powell a deeper look. Having read a lot of Hamilton, my sense was that Powel’s work added a bit of blood to the sprawling imagination Hamilton usually provides. Instead of going with Powell’s more acclaimed Embers of War trilogy, I decided to gamble on his newest release, Stars and Bones. Interestingly, I came away from the table even, being neither disappointed nor excited by the hands I had been dealt.
75 years ago, when the world looked like it was about to end, a cosmic entity akin to an Angel intervened in nuclear strikes and shoved humanity off planet Earth. They provided massive ships for everyone to move to and created the Continuance, a massive fleet of these country sized arkships, with varying environments and cultures. Eryn is a part of the Vanguard, an elite cadre of pilots who push the boundaries of the continuance, expanding our knowledge of the universe and the planets within it. Upon learning that her sister has disappeared while investigating a distress call from an alien source, Eryn pushes her way onto the crew sent to solve the mystery. Unfortunately for Erin and the rest of the Continuance, what they find on Candidate 623 is even deadlier and more alien than they could have guessed. Thrust into the mess by proximity and sheer determination, Eryn is tasked with finding the one man who convened with the angel who saved us from ourselves, for he may be the only one who can save humanity again.
Stars and Bones is a frustrating book for me. On the surface, Powell combines several staple science fiction ideas in an interesting world that both mildly cherishes human life and has zero attachment to it. It has elements of both cosmic and bodily horror that showcase the conglomeration of tropes in thrilling and tangible ways. However, the story that ties it all together is incredibly thin, with some unfortunately one dimensional characters. It’s not quite squandered potential, as the ending of the book opens interesting avenues for the rest of the trilogy, but the first outing felt overdone.
A lot of my issues can be found in the characters, more specifically my lack of attachment to them. Eryn felt like a standard protagonist with extraordinary circumstances thrust upon her. It barely felt like a duty to humanity, and more an “I’m going to handle this because I can” mentality. This paired with her artificially emotionally unstable past made her a hard character to root for. Essentially her big flaw was that she one time accidentally slept with the man who would become her sister’s husband, and father to Eryn’s niece. And when I say accidentally, I mean she didn’t even know this man was involved with her sister, and her sister was pregnant at the time. This built an unexplored rift between the two of them and drove Eryn to be the regretful boundary pusher the reader follows. I just could not buy that a one night stand with a man she jived well with was the hingepoint of her character. Any interaction that involved this immediately passed through me, every mention pushed me further from Eryn and her cadre.
Too bad I couldn’t latch onto any of the supporting characters either. Her ship’s envoy, Furious Ocelot, was just sort of there. He was her friend and in a number of ways her confidante, but his main role seemed to be the snarky and analytical partner in crime, which is fine, but he didn’t have any spice. The two cops that get entangled in the story are just either the best portrayal of cops who can’t do anything, or worse, just a mediocre portrayal of the down on their luck detectives. Every character felt like an accessory to Eryn, and there were several deaths that happened so quickly and without gravitas or emotional reaction, I kept expecting them to come back. It was baffling.
The structure of the book is also slightly off. For the most part, the story follows Eryn and her quest to find her sister, and ultimately to save the Continuance. However, there are a few interludes that zip the reader back to the point of humanity’s salvation, often told through the perspective of a billionaire who became increasingly concerned with the well being of the human project. Normally, I am against very clear backstory chapters, so it was already a point against Powell’s approach. On top of that, these sections barely added to the overall story, especially with the perspective they were presented with. The information could have been interesting with folklorish retellings given the time and distance from the events, but as they are I was kind of bored with them.
Stars and Bones in some ways felt like Powell trying to lay the foundations for the next two books. A lot of the story felt like it was explaining larger concepts and themes, without really having much of a place for them. Eryn constantly being pushed by the plot, and often finding herself in positions where she just has to get through it for a nugget of information to save the day one more time pushed the story to its limits. Stars and Bones is not a bad book, it just straddled the line between uninspired and interesting, guided along by a weak character with the faintest attachment to the consequences. It has not dissuaded me from Powell’s work, because the ideas, the bones, are there. I just hope Powell flexes some of his other muscles and shows off the connective tissues more in the future.
Rating: Stars and Bones 5.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.