Originally this “review” was going to just cover the partial galley. I made a promise to myself that I would not get lost in this book, allowing it to consume my soul, a quest I have clearly failed. I had three-quarters of a draft completed when my old pal Hugh-Brist showed up and petitioned me to read further. I asked him “Why Hugh, pray tell, would I embark on such a ridiculous endeavor?” His response was obvious: “Why not? Are you really going to call it quits after one hundred and thirty pages out of eight hundred and eighty? Are you that weak of heart?” I looked him dead in the eyes and I knew he had beaten me. So I bought a full copy of the book, and upon opening it on my e-reader, I knew I had fallen for one Hugh’s classic traps. The words “a book in the Fractalverse” flashed on my screen and I felt what was left of my soul scream and try to leave my corporeal form, but I held fast. I hunkered down with some tea, looked at my copy of The Trouble With Peace and whispered to it lovingly “please remain my lighthouse that guides me through these dark treacherous waters,” and I began to read the remainder of the book. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (hereafter TSIASOS), by Christopher Paolini, is a textbook example of doing too little with far too much and still leaves you feeling emptier than a bout of food poisoning.
TSIASOS follows one Kira Navarez, a xeno-biologist who does (surprise!) xenobiology. She travels the galaxy, researching planets that may have signs of extraterrestrial life. But after years of travelling and being away from her boyfriend, xeno-geologist Alan J. Barnes, they decide it is time to settle down on a planet and forgo the long swaths of time apart. While studying some interesting rock formations at the request of Alan, Kira discovers something weird, and her world is turned upside down. She awakens in a medical facility, unsure of what happened, and no idea what she may have discovered. But the planet she was just about to call home is now forbidden, and she, along with the rest of her crew, have been quarantined awaiting study. Soon she discovers she has been exposed to something alien and a “living” skin suit has attached itself to her body, and she has no understanding of its purpose, let alone how to communicate with it. Not soon after, her ship, along with the majority of humanity, is attacked by an alien civilization that up until this point had been non-existent, plunging Kira into a galactic battle that would decide the fate of humanity itself.
Continuing with the theme of being honest, I don’t even really know where I can begin to talk about this book. I had to take a week to process it and get the demons out of my system. Several people had to walk me back from the precipice of lovecraftian madness, laughing at my misery while egging me on, craving those delicious moments where I cracked and revealed my feelings about the book. I knew I had to soldier on, but how can one reviewer withstand so much darkness and not emerge unscathed? Well, I didn’t, and really no hero should emerge without scars, otherwise there is no reminder of who you once were healing into the person you’ve become. Yes, that was a specific dig at this book. So, I might as well actually get to why I did not like this thing and be a decent reviewer so you, like all of my smart friends, can stay away from this pain.
This is an incredibly plot heavy book that does the absolute minimum required to service a fast-paced action heavy story. Now, some people do not mind a good page turner like that. Hell, I’m even predisposed to it on occasion. What I found extremely troubling about this particular book is that it is all payoff, no setup. Every moment that should have an impact on the characters and the reader just comes out of left field. There were several times where something is revealed to the reader that the characters already just knew. Ideally you would want this; it makes the world feel grounded in its own reality. However, Paolini makes it fall flat by shoving the interesting aspect of the world and a limp character moment into the same paragraph, making both fall even flatter. Sometimes he does the opposite, taking an interesting character moment and then blaming it on some behind the scenes tampering. There is no moment that feels like it will come back to haunt Kira, or any of the crew members. Every bit of tension is immediately released, or has zero consequences. There were clear moments where set up could have occurred, but Paolini just sidestepped it, had a small conversation about it between his characters, and moved on. This is very clearly an issue of showing versus telling, and somehow Paolini manages to do both at the same time while accomplishing nothing.
It does not take very long for the book to become a fantasy book in space, and the first clue rears its mighty head the moment Kira is able to understand the alien that has attached itself to her, and she learns its name is Soft Blade. Admittedly, the name itself is interesting, and adds an incredible amount of potential depth, but as I mentioned above, it never really pays off. After Kira’s entire crew is fridged–and no, I don’t mean cryogenically frozen, I mean killed– she is whisked away onto another ship full of ragtag smugglers/traders who do their very best to act out their tropes. A bit of mysticism ensues with a seemingly random passerby who tells her to “eat the path” and our gallant heroes are off to save the galaxy by finding a magical staff, right as a second batch of different aliens shows up to turn the war into a three-way. Listen, I’m not here to kink-shame, nor am I here to be a genre gatekeeper (hell we wrote a whole piece praising the idea of Science-Fantasy), but this book did not read as advertised and was worse for it.
“But Alex,” I hear you say, “what if I forgive this book of said trespass, will I enjoy it otherwise?” No dear reader, beyond the plot there is not really much else. Worldbuilding seems to be what people might be expecting given Paolini’s history, but it’s bare bones at best here, and even those bones have been cracked open and the marrow dried to dust. There are hints at interesting things, but there is never a why. There is no history, no politics, no governance, no corporations, no real reason to be in outer space. There are seemingly interesting groups of people, but they have no raison d’etre. The Entropists are the best example as they are the most fleshed out. The Entropists are an ill-defined group of humans who feel that the pursuit of science and reason should be first and foremost, but they just end up being space wizards. Their philosophy doesn’t really conflict with Kira or the other crew members, nor does it bolster her decisions. They are just there to shoot lasers and be cool. Literally every other group in the book gets a couple of sentences at best, even those who exist among the crew. In the end, the worldbuilding in TSIASOS is just cool little “lore-like” tidbits that are mere sprinkles of salt and pepper on an oversized and overcooked steak.
I wish I could sum up the aliens in this book in a laser precise sentence that sums up their narrative purpose while also pointing out their utter dullness. As I mentioned before, there are not one, but TWO alien species in this conflict. If you crank the handle long enough, a third one peeks its head up, gives you the finger and goes to hide in it’s mystery box for the rest of the book. To be fair, this is the one instance where Paolini provides set up, but then decides to put the payoff in another book. Instead we’re left with the Jellies and the Nightmares. The Jellies are a hierarchical form-fits-function civilization of squid-like aliens that have much more advanced technology than us, and they communicate by sense of smell. They are ruled by the mighty Ctein, a centuries old Jelly that controls every aspect of their lives and they don’t like humans. There is a lot to not like about the Jellies, but the part that irked me the most is due to the Soft Blade, Kira has no trouble communicating with them, and there is no translation element to the extremely different way they communicate. I may be spoiled by other authors who do an excellent job of tackling alien communications, but Paolini just punctualizes the speech differently, and has no room for interpretation. It removes any tension between Kira and the Jellies, and it makes me angry. The Nightmares are just space zombies, a giant all consuming space horde that wants to eat everything, for literally no other reason than it’s convenient to the plot. SO THAT’S COOL.
Well if the worldbuilding is lackluster, and plot is incredibly derivative, the characters have to be it, right chief? I don’t like being the consistent bearer of bad news, but no this really ain’t it. Kira herself is a blank slate whose primary character trait is “why did this have to happen to me, this sucks.” You can technically say she experiences “growth” as we are told of how different she is now than she was in the beginning of the book, but Paolini skips grounded character work making it feel unearned. Her big moments are accidentally killing people or Jellies, training with the soft blade while everyone is cryogenically frozen, and consciously killing Jellies. The people who know her are killed early on, allowing her to be free of historical constraints and allowing any moment to be considered development. Her job as a xeno-biologist is just that, a job. A lot of her interactions with other characters feel like transactions with non-player characters in an RPG, utilizing them for what knowledge or skills they can provide her to solve the puzzle and nothing more. What makes it so frustrating is Paolini tries so hard to make these intimate moments between strangers happen, and they all just fall flat, adding to the lore, instead of the drama.
I could write for days about this book, diving into spoilers and going into unwarranted, invasive, and completely unnecessary psychoanalysis. There are lists that could be produced about all the different references Paolini makes in TSIASOS to science fiction that just scream “I read sci-fi you guys, please I swear.” I have so many highlights in my e-reader that amount to “WHAT,” that they could serve as citations in a doctoral thesis on Paolini’s view of the human condition. Instead, I’ll just morosely say, please don’t read this book. Don’t put yourself through this gauntlet, don’t let Hugh-Brist tell you “it won’t be that bad.” I’ve waited until the end to say this, because I wanted you to read the whole warning before getting to this point. I needed you to understand, while not directly feeling this pain yourself. To Sleep In A Sea of Stars is just Eragon in space, and somehow that makes it worse.
Rating: To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars – Why did I read this whole book, 2.0/10