Further Tales From the Paper Mountain

Welcome to an offshoot of my monthly book column,Tales from the Paper Mountain.” These two books stood out from the rest of my monthly pile and dovetail neatly, so I thought they deserved to stand together in a post of their own. If you’re looking for cracking female characters from writers of great talent, then read on!

One of the best things about reviewing books for GeekDad, or indeed anywhere, is that brilliant and amazing novels randomly find their way into your hands. So it was with The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley and The Huntress: Sea by Sarah Driver.

The Huntress appeared on my review choices as part of the Amazon Vine program. I’ve been trying to up the number of children’s books I review as part of a side project I’ve been working on in conjunction with my children’s school, so I thought I’d give it a try. The Stars are Legion was sent to me in error by a PR rep. Serendipity then, that I read the both, because they are excellent books.

The two books are nothing alike. The Stars are Legion is a conceptual space opera filled with decaying worlds and The Huntress, a maritime coming-of-age fantasy written ostensibly for children. Despite their differences, the two novels are remarkably similar. Mostly because of the fantastic female characters that sit at the center of them.

I’ve been meaning to read some Kameron Hurley for a while, having heard only good things about her God’s War series. I had no real idea what I expected from The Stars are Legion, but whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t what I found. The novel defies expectation.

Hurley knew that her novel would be a hard sell, “WHAT IS THIS 1968?” she says in the novel’s afterword. The reason? The Stars are Legion hasn’t a single man it. Such a device doesn’t seem too big a stretch to imagine in 2017, yet reading the book one quickly realizes how unusual it is. It’s not that men just don’t feature in the book, they don’t appear to exist in the universe Hurley has created.

The book opens with Zan waking from having suffered terrible injuries in an interplanetary (or possibly inter-starship) war. She has lost her memory, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the first time this has happened. With her is Jayd, her ‘sister’ who is apparently the same race as Zan and possibly a romantic companion; Zan cannot recall.

What follows is a mind-bending tale of lost identity, race, and war. The stars may well be legion, but the story mainly deals with three. Zan and Jayd are Katazyrna, who are in an eternal war with the Mokshi. Taking advantage of the savage battle between Katazyrna and Mokshi are the Bhavajas, who, early in the book, almost kill Zan for a second time.

It is evident, to the reader, that all the worlds are dying. The wars feel like fiddling with deck chairs as the universe implodes. Yet, it seems Zan and Jayd have a plan. Only Zan doesn’t know what it is and Jayd won’t tell her because the last time she did Zan became unhinged. Which feeds into another peculiarity of Hurley’s world. People are “recycled” a process that is (usually) final, but Zan has made it back at least once.

Part of the story is a “revealed memory” narrative. As Zan’s journey continues, she learns more about her past. And as she progresses, so we learn more about her world, and like all great science fiction, we hold up a lens to our world too. Hurley examines prejudice and the peril of repeating the mistakes of the past. With the peculiar reproductive qualities of her characters, she examines the nature of parenthood and childbirth, challenging preconceptions as she does so.

The Stars are Legion is never difficult to read but was occasionally baffling as I tried to follow what was going on. Everything mostly falls into place and the sense of mystery created means the book is never boring. This is high concept science fiction, and sometimes it took me a little bit of time to catch up with what was happening.  The novel is not for the squeamish. There are some queasy moments in the book, particularly centered around childbirth. The process of recycling is about as horrific as you can imagine, only more so.

The Stars are Legion builds to a tense climax, as the truth of the situation is revealed. I haven’t read anything this unusual for some time. The book is the product of a writer pushing the genre in interesting directions. I doubt I’ll read a book as original in 2017, even if its core is rooted in 1968.

Kameron Hurley and Sarah Driver. I wish I could write like them,

Considering the preponderance of childbirth in The Stars are Legion it is somehow fitting that the companion novel I’ve chosen for this piece was written by a midwife. I’d love to know what Sarah Driver makes of Kameron Hurley’s take on the delivery of new life.

Hurley’s Zan and Driver’s Mouse are cut from the same cloth. They’re both strong women trying to understand the world they find themselves in. Mouse, though, has barely turned 13.

The Huntress is a sailing ship in a magical land, filled with mythical and terrifying beasts. Mouse is the granddaughter of a Sea Captain, and one day, it has been foretold, she will be captain of The Huntress too.

As the novel opens, this seems like an impossibility. Mouse’s mother is dead, her father missing, and her brother blind and sickly. Her grandmother, to all intents and purposes a witch, holds the ship together by force of will alone. The arrival of a taciturn ex-member of the crew, and a terrible storm throws Mouse’s world into turmoil. Her world tipped overboard, she sets off down a trail laid for her by her absent father.

Such is the quality of the tale, it put me in mind of Philip Pullman’s His Dark MaterialsThere is a blend of myth and magic versus technology. Mouse’s small but tough demeanor reminded me of Lyra, as does Mouse’s special ability of being able to talk to animals. There are differences. Mouse’s world is filled with superstition and faith. She is fighting against a man who believes in the power of gunpowder and advancement. He would see Mouse’s world swept away.

Subtitled “Sea,” this is the first book in The Huntress trilogy. The titles of the next books, Sky and Land, hint at their nature, as does the ending of this first volume. The first two-thirds of Sea are good children’s fiction, but the final third elevates it towards greatness. The blend of quest, magic, and the novel’s dark setting are mesmerizing. Driver’s world building is rich and enchanting, and she weaves a classic adventure tale into it. A classic tale with a well-wrought heroine. I can’t wait to see where the next volume takes us.

Disclaimer: I was sent copies of both books in order to write this review. 

Dad of Boys, Reader of Books, Player of Games. Haven't had a 'real' job or a full night's sleep since 2005