Whelp, The Stars are Legion was an awesome book. Honestly, I had been stuck in a slump of reading mediocre books for several months, so to find this gem of a novel was the best thing to happen to me since that new frozen yogurt place opened up down the street. As I was attempting to write a straight review of this book, I realized that I didn’t have anything negative to say about it … which is a real rarity for me – not because I’m constantly negative or anything, but because I have a wee bit of a tendency to overanalyze media. If I was forced to level a criticism, then I might say that the first 25% of the book was paced slowly, but this is true of so many novels that are amazing that I think taking a lot of time to set things up can often make a story better. I could just rave about all the many things about this book that are awesome all day … but in the interest of not writing a 10,000 word essay, I’ve decided to just list three things that I found particularly great about this book.
1. The World Is Alive! (Literally)
I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, so it is rare that a setting strikes me as original. The Stars Are Legion takes place on a huge spaceship that is also made up almost entirely of organic, living material. Nearly everything that the characters use in their day to day lives including furniture and smaller vehicles is made by the ship and is, in some sense, alive. Near the beginning of the novel, one of the main characters notes that a table bears a striking resemblance to human skin. Yes, this is all as creepy as it sounds. The all-female cast of characters give birth to things that the ship needs and that includes not just babies, but also mechanical parts for the ship. It’s weird, but intriguing. And it makes this detail more than just an interesting setting feature – it ties into the plot and themes of the novel in several ways. The novel is about recycling, cannibalism, pregnancy, and bodily autonomy – and the world reflects and reinforces these themes.
2. We Get An All-Female World – But the Story Doesn’t Make a Big Deal About It
Usually when an author employs the all-female or all-male society, they make a big deal about envisioning what such a society would be like in comparison to our own. This can work well, but it often leads to all-female societies being defined by gender stereotypes. A matriarchal society often means that there’s no war, for example. Or it’s a matriarchal society and that means that there are no hierarchical power structures. These tropes are often on the positive side, but they are based on gender stereotypes all the same.
Instead of doing this, The Stars Are Legion gives us a story with multiple cultures that are as varied as we might expect different cultures to be. There’s no implication that an all-female society has rid the universe of all its woes – there’s still conflict, oppression, and war in this society. In fact, much of the plot revolves around war. But it’s not a society of just conflict and strife either. Instead, we see a bunch of women who are going about their lives and who are motivated by the same things that usually motivate characters in stories – power, love, honor, compassion, ambition, etc. Instead of wasting time telling us what an all-female society would look like, the book shows richly developed female characters taking every role in the story.
None of this is to say that gender is completely irrelevant in this book. In particular, there are some plotlines revolving around pregnancy and women’s bodies that having an all-female world helps highlight. But the story isn’t so impressed with itself for giving us an all-female society that it forgets to give us much else – and that’s one of the things that I love it.
3. It Dips Its Toes Into Different Genres
After reading the first chapter or so of this book, I was expecting the story to be a pretty straightforward space opera. And it is a space opera. But different sections of this book also reminded me strongly of other genres and this lends the book an air of the unexpected. There are elements of horror in the story such as when the main character, Zan, is trapped in the ship’s garbage dump and she has to avoid terrifying monsters whose job it is to eat the trash (including people). While I can technically imagine this type of scene being in many science fiction/fantasy novels, the sheer terror and revulsion that these scenes conjure would not be out of place in a horror novel. These scenes feel like they are meant to horrify the reader rather than just present an obstacle for the hero to overcome.
Perhaps an even more surprising turn is when Zan begins her quest to find her way back her own part of the ship and the story suddenly starts to feel like a fantasy adventure. This was unexpected and I had to question whether I was imagining the connection, but the parallels are pretty clear. During this part of the novel, Zan picks up several companions who travel with her through parts of the world that she previously didn’t know existed. These companions are: Arunkadash, a stiff, noble sort; Casamir, a
hobbit small, clever tinkerer; and Das Muni, a mutant social outcast. The parts of the world that they travel through have a certain low-tech, superstitious vibe which makes this section of the novel feel all the more like fantasy. Zan and her new friends visit various peoples whose customs are strange to Zan and they get into several strange, life-threatening misadventures along the way. During this time, Zan begins to suspect that she done all this before.
In Conclusion …
I’m a sucker for a good fantasy adventure and this is a better one than you’ll find in many fantasy novels. This book is just consistently excellent and you should check it out. I mean, I barely began to cover how complex and interesting the characters are or how the story surprises and delights at every turn. There’s a lot of gore in this book, so if you find that sort of thing extremely off-putting, you might not want to try it. Otherwise, it is highly recommended.
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