I don’t like reading Space Opera. Or at least I didn’t until I read Gareth L. Powell. (And, to be fair, Becky Chambers). His Embers of War trilogy, especially the first two novels, sets a very high bar for other writers of the genre. A new book from Gareth is a happy event in my house, which is why I was thrilled to be asked if I’d like to review Stars and Bones.
I began reading Stars and Bones on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. It was with some consternation then, that in the opening pages of the book, complete thermonuclear destruction of the earth is imminent. It all felt uncomfortably real. Unfortunately, I suspect a cosmic entity will not rescue us.
For this is what happens in Stars and Bones. Just as humanity is about to destroy itself, a physicist in Oxford makes a discovery that makes the human race worth rescuing. A cosmic being intervenes. It had been residing on Jupiter, masquerading as a cloud; like Pooh Bear, only more enigmatic.
This intervention is not without a price. Humanity is forced to evacuate Earth. To leave the planet, allowing it to recover from the climate catastrophe we have been hell-bent on bringing about. We’re loaded off into a fleet of sentient starships, and start a nomadic existence among the stars.
As the novel opens, an exploratory vessel investigates a planet where another ship has previously gone missing. The investigation does not go well. The remains of the previous party and a reasonable amount else, are found in neat, and inexplicable piles. Shadowy monsters set about the party and force a few of them back onto their ship. They flee back into space where they try to rejoin the fleet.
Unfortunately, the mysterious assailant is more akin to a virus than a physical monster. It is not easily outrun and sets about trying to overwhelm everything it encounters.
There are lots of reasons to read Gareth L. Powell novels, he’s a writer of considerable talent and skill and creates great concepts on which to base his stories. From the moment you start reading Stars and Bones, you want to know what is going on, and how the mystery will play out. It compels from start to finish.
Powell’s ships’ AI, in both Embers of War and Stars and Bones, are excellent characters in themselves. Not only engaging and entertaining but also mirrors to the frailty and absurdities of human existence. All of the characters in Stars and Bones are well-realized and interesting people. You want to get to know them.
Point of view switches during the book but mostly focuses on Eryn, who was on board the second ship to touch down on planet Candidate 623, and whose sister was killed during the previous expedition. For Eryn, the journey is personal. She’s a great narrator; a trademark Powell character. Strong, independent, and sarcastic; determined but with a human fragility that makes us all root for her success.
This is not a political space opera (although the author does make some delightful political points via the myriad different ships in humanity’s fleet). It’s a hi-concept monster thriller that has a surprisingly human core. The novel unexpectedly poses questions about parenting and the effect of trauma on the young. You don’t see it coming and it’s quite affecting.
Star and Bones is a complete novel, though there is definitely room for a sequel. Once again, Gareth L. Powell shows himself to be the master of pace and setting, with great sci-fi concepts and impeccable dialogue. I’d read his shopping lists if he published them.
If you’d like to pick up a copy of Stars and Bones, you can do so here, in the US, and here, in the UK.
If you enjoyed this post, check out my other book reviews, here.
Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book in order to write this review.