“A hero does not choose her trials. She steps into the darkness, then she faces what comes next.”
As we left Skyward, Spensa appeared to have become the hero she wanted to, as courageous as Beowulf and the heroes of the Viking (and other) sagas that Gran-Gran had fed her with: she had saved Alta from destruction, redeemed her father, escaped the prison of Detritus (albeit briefly) and restored M-Bot. Where was Sanderson going to take her after that success?
With Starsight, we very quickly discover that he takes her far, far away!
Hurlting back into combat and action from the opening page, we find ourselves some months on from the end of Skyward. The war with the Krell continues apace but developments and progress have occurred: most notably, Ironsides has been replaced by Cobb as Admiral and the DDF has moved from Alta and the planet surface to one of the orbiting platforms. Spensa and M-Bot have (inevitably) been fully accepted in the DDF now and Skyward Flight reformed along with FM, Kimmalyn, Nedd, Arturo and of course Jorgen. Spensa and M-Bot are still exceptional together, learning about their abilities – cytonic and individual.
What was I expecting with this novel? I was really not sure: the final chapters of Skyward shifted the understanding and expanded the universe so much that anything felt possible. I suppose more Krell attacks, more mushroom-related humour from M-Bot, an increased threat to Detritus, another cytonic ability uncovered… almost the pattern of a computer game. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
But Sanderson takes a different route and explodes his universe massively!
By a series of heavily contrived coincidences which do stretch credibility but are ultimately saved by the lightning pace in which it plays out!
An alien space ship crash lands on Detritus, piloted by Alanik of the UrDail who is seriously injured but broadly humanoid in shape and size:
pale violet skin, stark-white hair, and bonelike white growths on her cheeks, underlining her eyes. Despite her alien features though, she had an obvious female shape beneath a snug flight jacket. She almost could have been one of us.
She is also cytonic and en route to the space station Starsight which is controlled by The Superiority – the alien government (formed of a number of species) responsible for containing humanity on Detritus – to train with their pilots. We learn that M-Bot had discovered the plans for a mobile micro-hologram projector between the two books in the series, which could project an holographic image onto Spensa allowing her to pass herself off as Alanik. In the space of a half dozen pages, Spensa has teleported to the other side of the galaxy leaving Detritus and Skyward Flight behind with just M-Bot and Doomslug for company.
And on Starsight, whilst superficially training for the military, Spensa is looking for the secret to their faster-than-light hyperdrives because she has only been able to teleport twice so far: once, intuitively, to save her life from the Life Buster bomb at the conclusion of Skyward and once with the help of Alanik’s cytonic link. And each time, the mysterious eyes in the Nowhere and the creatures that dwell there are drawn to her.
Whilst these coincidences do stretch credibility, you can forgive them because of the flowering of the universe they allow. On Starsight, Spensa comes across an array of new species and here Sanderson is at play. We finally meet the varvax – whom Spensa still thinks of and refers to as krell, the enemy of her species – who are a small crab-like species floating inside a humanoid exoskeleton. The recruitment programme is run by a varvax, Winzik, who maintains the language of non-aggression with little (slightly sinister) micro-aggressions saying “My, my! Such aggression!”. The other key species are the diones who
have neither sex nor gender until they breed for the first time, whereupon they form a kind of cocoon with another individual. It’s really quite fascinating; as part of the breeding process, they merge for a time into a separate third individual.
It is a dione who had invited Alanik to Starsight in the first place, Cuna.
Both these species (and a few others) are deemed of Primary Intelligence and have access to governmental positions and the hyperdrive technology – and it is great to see that the Superiority’s stranglehold over the Universe is not driven by its military but by economy and travel, which seems completely credible! – unlike lesser races of only secondary citizenship: the fox-like kitsen who abandoned a monarchist system to try to join the Superiority; the gorilla-like burl; the UrDail. Recently, I reviewed The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet and I grumbled that the aliens were just large humanoid versions of earth animals and the same grumble hold here. I did like the character Vapor though, a sentient scent – whether she was the scent or emitted the scent was not quite clear – who was invisible and able to travel in space without a ship and could infiltrate and take over electrical systems including space fighters.
The language of division and segregation and racism is unsettling and surprisingly chilling throughout – the pressure put on other species to conform in order to have access to hyperdrives and therefore trade and communication is truly sinister. And so embedded in the culture that those in power don’t even see it – surprisingly thoughtful for what is, on the surface, an action-adventure young adult space opera!
There is a heart to this book, beneath the thrills and action (of which there is quite a lot in the opening and closing sections, although a lot less in the middle) – it is about overcoming prejudice, looking beyond difference, seeing the person regardless of where they come from or what they look like. It is a little clunky, perhaps clumsy, at times – M-Bot’s ruminations about his own status as being alive, Spensa’s fairly obviously wrong assumptions about innocent aliens – but the finale between Spensa and the Delver was wonderful!
And this is very much Spensa’s book: her maturation from cadet to trainer, from being physically a warrior to a more mental and emotion warfare, from being defined as being bullied to being defined as a person. Almost all of the other characters from Skyward are relegated to the background – save for occasional interludes back on Detritus with Jorgen and Gran-Gran – and even poor M-Bot is grounded for the majority of the novel – and oh those final pages!
We also learn more of Spensa’s cytonic abilities – and they start to grow apace – and the whole realm of the nowhere with the vast delvers that reside there, viewing the humans who invade the nowhere with sufficient irritation or pain to seek to eradicate them. Vast – planetary in size – malevolence and violence seems to radiate from them and somehow infect Spensa herself. Can she trust who she is herself?
For me, the novel was a fun read and Sanderson obviously had fun with the new setting: the abundant, relaxed, peaceful life on Starsight was a marked contrast to the militaristic bleakness of Detritus – and that zero-gravity waterpark! but far from perfect for the following reasons. But it for me missed the mark occasionally – I wanted more Jerkface! And more of Detritus, more mushrooms and a plot arc that doesn’t involve Spensa joining the military, training, making unexpected friends – but there was a real heart to it and I will certainly be looking out for the next books… because, that was one hell of a cliff-hanger ending, Mr Sanderson.
Well played sir, well played!
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Date: 26th November 2019