I’ll admit that I first discovered Claudia Gray through her Star Wars novels. But talk about a killer way to first experience an author! I’m on record as saying that Gray’s Star Wars work—Lost Stars and Bloodline—are two of the best (if not the two best) books in the “new canon.” Both feature a compelling storyline, vibrant new characters, kickass female protagonists, and a legitimately exciting new direction for the saga. (Check out my conversation with her here.)
Her take on Leia in Bloodline, especially, was spot on and amazing. In my review of that book, I called it “the most personal, relevant, and poignant Star Wars book I’ve ever read.” I still stand by that statement. So it should be welcome news that Gray is returning to Leia with the young adult novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan, which is due out in the run up to December’s The Last Jedi.
So, all of that to say that I was eagerly anticipating Gray’s new young adult novel, Defy the Stars, which I should point out is in no way connected to the Star Wars universe.
But it does happen to feature a compelling storyline, vibrant characters, and a kickass female protagonist you won’t soon forget.
Earth is the center of humanity, but it’s become our home world in name only. The seas have risen, there’s more water than land, and it’s quickly becoming a lifeless hunk of rock hurtling through the cosmos. Nevertheless, it’s still the seat of centralized power.
Human colonists have spread out to a handful of other planets, which are connected in a loop by a series of interstellar gates. “Each Gate stabilizes one end of a singularity—a shortcut through space-time that allows a ship to travel partway across the galaxy in a mere instant.”
Most of those planets are little more than hollowed-out strip mines that Earth has exploited and drained. Those that aren’t are playgrounds for the rich and powerful. And then there’s Genesis.
Genesis is Noemi Vidal’s home planet, and—of all the known and colonized worlds—it’s the only one that hasn’t been spoiled, raped of its natural resources, and left to rot. The people of Genesis are also intensely religious and protective of their home. They are therefore at the center of a brutal war for independence that will determine their survival—very literally. Noemi (a teen soldier of Latin American ancestry) is a Genesis soldier training for the Masada Run—a suicide mission whose best hope is to delay the interstellar war by a few months.
But then, during a training flight, Noemi stumbles on a derelict ship and finds Abel: model 1A of the Mansfield Cybernetics Line. And everything changes. Because it’s with Abel that Noemi discovers a way to end the war and stop the senseless killing. The only catch is that her plan requires Abel to sacrifice himself. And the more time they spend together, hopping between the colonized worlds, the more difficult that decision becomes.
Burton Mansfield was the genius behind the design and development of cybernetic consciousness: mechs. There are 25 different models running around the galaxy, each with a specific function (e.g., soldier, doctor, mechanical, and pleasure mechs). Mechs are a common sight on every planet (except Genesis), but Abel shouldn’t exist. He’s just a myth. And he’s been trapped aboard his abandoned ship, alone, for 30 years.
Abel’s programming includes all 25 mech models’ unique skills—plus so much more. In Abel, Mansfield found a perfection he could never duplicate: a mech that appears perfectly human and possesses an artificial intelligence so sophisticated that he can feel human emotions. And in his 30 years of isolation, he developed far beyond his creator’s wildest imagination. In short, he is the most advanced and complex mech ever made.
“He isn’t supposed to hope. Not like humans do. Yet during the past several years, his mind has been forced to deepen. With no new stimulation, he has reflected on every piece of information, every interaction, every single element of his existence before the abandonment of the Daedalus. Something within his inner workings has changed, and probably not for the better.”
As we follow Noemi and Abel on their journey through the different worlds of the ring, Defy the Stars poses some seriously hefty questions.
- What is the nature of humanity?
- What constitutes a soul?
- What is love, and how do we know it?
- How much would you risk/sacrifice for your ideals?
- How far are you willing to go for your beliefs?
- What is the definition of free will?
- What is the difference between rebellion and terrorism?
Even though the book is written in the third person, Gray alternates between Noemi’s and Abel’s point of view, providing the reader with a deeper examination and understanding of each character. Both characters begin the book as abrasive caricatures. Gray intentionally introduces them both as little more than one-dimensional case studies in what their society has defined them to be.
“This mission is the most important thing she’ll ever do. It’s also the one chance she’ll ever have to travel through the galaxy. Noemi doesn’t want to lose sight of either of those things, not for one second.”
By the last of the book’s 500+ pages, though, you will feel intensely connected to these characters in a way you didn’t think possible. I was prepared for Noemi’s emotional journey and character arc. What I was not prepared for was Abel’s awakening and road to self-discovery. And I fell in love with them both.
There are definitely shades of other popular sci-fi franchises here. The Abel/Mansfield dynamic feels a lot like Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data/Noonien Soong relationship. The various mechs are reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons. Noemi’s crusade to free Genesis from Earth’s authoritarian grip has strong echoes of Katniss Everdeen and The Hunger Games. And there’s a dash of Westworld‘s emerging independent consciousness for good measure.
None of this is a complaint, mind you. Gray has taken some of the most compelling aspects of those other works and combined them into something new and exciting. And in 2017, she’s taken the ubiquitous mantra of “Resist” and thrown it into outer space to show just how relevant and sadly enduring that message truly is.
“But even if you don’t need something, can’t you want it?”