Untangling the Lies: A Review of The Wrong Stars

The Wrong Stars (2017)
Written by: Tim Pratt
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 400 (Kindle)
Series: Axiom Book One
Publisher: Angry Robot

Why I Chose It: Tim Pratt is one of those writers whose books I pick up at random, though I always pay attention when he releases a new one. His books entertain me, but they’re not always must reads. He’s the writer-in-reserve in my brain. I loved the first three Marla Mason books, but though I bought the others, I haven’t read them yet. I enjoyed Heirs of Grace and his short story collection Antiquities and Intangibles. I read but wasn’t crazy about The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl. But I quite liked his pseudonymous T Aaron Payton offering of The Constantine Affliction and was sad the series didn’t continue.

All of this is to say he’s pretty cemented in my head as a fantasy writer. So I was surprised when he came out with The Wrong Stars—a space opera. I sampled it, enjoyed the sample, and wished that my book budget allowed for buying it right that moment.

But hey, Spec Chic wants to do a Philip K Dick Award nominee review so… obviously, it was the green light I needed.

The Premise:

A ragtag crew of humans and posthumans discover alien technology that could change the fate of humanity… or awaken an ancient evil and destroy all life in the galaxy.

The shady crew of the White Raven run freight and salvage at the fringes of our solar system. They discover the wreck of a centuries-old exploration vessel floating light years away from its intended destination and revive its sole occupant, who wakes with news of First Alien Contact. When the crew break it to her that humanity has alien allies already, she reveals that these are very different extra-terrestrials… and the gifts they bestowed on her could kill all humanity, or take it out to the most distant stars.

File Under: Science Fiction [ Adrift | Liar Liar | Golden Spiders | Bridge the Void ]

What did I think of Pratt’s foray into space? Spoilers ahoy!

Discussion: Do you want a fun romp of a space opera about a diverse crew of strange characters dealing with treacherous, yet endearing aliens and facing potentially the end of humanity? If so, yeah, you’ll like this.

There are some things Pratt does really well as a writer in his fantasy books and those same things translated into The Wrong Stars. He’s excellent at naming things. I know that sounds like faint praise, but my god, all writers know the effort involved in making something up, and naming it in a way that feels natural. Here, he gives us “goldilocks” ships — desperate Earthlings fleeing a presumably doomed Earth in tiny ships. They scatter in all directions, all seeking that “just right” planet where they can start new colonies. So goldilocks feels intuitive and natural. Awesome. Then there are the Liars. The Liars may be some of my favorite aliens ever. I would read tons more about the Liars and their interactions with humans.

His characterization is great. I got a strong feel early on for all the crew of The White Raven (our heroine’s ship). I really enjoyed spending time with these people, and I’m looking forward to book 2 and more of their adventures.

And I loved the world-building. One of the fun things about space opera (at least the kind I grew up on) is the going to strange worlds and exploring strange things. The Wrong Stars does a lot of that, and the explorations are delightful. The constant shifting revelation of how the characters perceived the world was great. The supposedly clued-in characters have to deal with revelation after revelation about the Liars, about their own history, about what’s actually going on in their outer space. And who the lurking monsters really are.

Things that didn’t work for me so well:

The romance aspect. I’m a fan of romances in my spec fic, especially when they’re grace notes instead of the main plot. But Callie and Elena’s relationship seemed clunky to me. More told than felt, and oddly young for who these women were supposed to be. Callie likes Elena, the reader realizes, because we’re told Callie likes Elena. This was kind of a pity, because they were both such admirable and interesting characters that an attraction that felt more organic would have been awesome. I also found Elena’s attraction to Callie kind of odd because Elena was contemplating a potential future with someone else days previously. That made her feel a little fickle, even though I freely acknowledge that attraction is attraction no matter the timing. By the time Pratt gave an explanation for that, I had been perplexed for some pages. I do love that both of the women are matter-of-factly bisexual.

The plot is adventurous and full of twists and turns, most of which worked. But a few came a little too fast. Events just kept getting big and bigger, and it felt a little rushed for me. There’s a major plot moment where the entire Trans-Neptunian Station is destroyed. And when I say station, I mean pretty much a vibrant, thriving, hugely populated colony. It’s murder of thousands of people, if not more. And it was just kind of hey, that happened, and that sucks, and we’re off to seek revenge. I felt like it needed some significant emotional aftermath.

I wasn’t impressed by the villain, at least, not the one Callie deals with on the pages. As with the romance, I felt like his motivations were more told than felt. He was the only character that fell flat for me. He came off more as a caricature — the mad megalomaniac — than a real, vaguely tragic character. He felt more like an obstacle more than a person. While his goals were terrifying, they were melodramatic and made me think of James Bond movie villainy.

The aftermath of stopping the bad guy was also really rushed. Yay, they’ve saved the day (which no one else knows), but hey, they still have all these major issues left on the table — they’re homeless, they have revenge to seek on two sets of aliens, and then they have the big looming problem of the Axiom (the aliens who see themselves as gods). I loved Callie’s solutions to these issues: need revenge but the person you want is too powerful for you to take on yourself? Manipulate someone else into doing it and mop up.

Need a home since yours is gone? Steal one from the people you manipulated into clearing out.

Deal with the Axiom… she’ll think of something. Later.

In the end, I think the flaws are there because there was just so much book crammed into these pages. 400 pages seems like plenty of time, but I felt like Pratt presented so many awesome ideas that some got short-changed. As a result, events and relationships never really had the emotional weight I wanted them to have.

Callie, from page one, is competent and clever.

Callie is compassionate, we see that, too.

So the Callie of the mid-book, off on a crazily dangerous rescue mission on behest of a woman she barely knows makes sense.

But the Callie of the endgame is an entirely leveled-up aspect, and I missed the slow burn to that shift: the woman who can manipulate two dangerous sets of enemies into open conflict with each other so that she can swoop in and claim the remnants.

I blame the short-hand romance also on the overabundance of plot. When it seems like you have a hundred more pages worth of plot than you have book, the romance has to be kind of efficient to fit in.

The ending violence and the centerpiece of the station being destroyed never quite gelled with the rest of the book’s tone for me.

In conclusion: Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book and will pick up the sequel without hesitation. It’s a good, fun read, and the Liars are wonderful additions to space opera aliens. I want to see more. I look forward to the characters and maybe getting to see them develop more slowly and organically.

But is it award-worthy? I’m torn. The Wrong Stars was a lot of fun, and sets up a whole array of potentially great sequels. I’ve already recommended it to at least three other friends.

But this year has some amazing books nominated, and I’ve only read half of them. I reviewed Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes and found it satisfying and impressive. And then there’s Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, which was in my list of favorite books from 2017 because of her Murderbot character, and the fast, fun, yet oddly philosophical plot.

I haven’t read the other nominees, though Bannerless is on my TBR list. But right now, I have to admit I’d root for Six Wakes.

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