I have some confessions to make as I start this review. First, I tend to scorn hype for books, afraid that I’ll be disappointed by them. Second, I didn’t really enjoy Eragon all that much. Third, I was mostly excited about this book because of the cover art. There, did I confess enough crimes against general readership? (I have many more.) All of that said, I absolutely adored To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini. I’ll try to avoid them, but fair warning for SPOILERS in this review.
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this novel, but I can fairly say that it subverted basically every expectation I ended up having as the novel went along. Each time I thought I’d figured out the next twist or the next turn in the story, I was surprised anew. And none of these were in ways that were annoying or contrived. Paolini has created a stunning space opera that constantly delights.
Perhaps the best part of the book is how frequently Paolini uses what seems a trope or theme from science fiction and then brings it to a surprising conclusion. Early on, when our protagonist Kira Navárez is living on a colony in love, I thought this might be a simple work of exploration and colony life. Wrong. I thought that the alien artifact discovered had many similarities to, say, the film “Life,” Wrong. Time and again, I saw inspirations from many sources of science fiction, even explicit references (a character named Ivanova as a nod to Babylon 5? I’ll take it!). Other references aren’t so explicit, but may still be there (is Kira Navárez perhaps a nod to Kira Nerys?). Despite all of these inspirations, the book never beigns to feel derivative Paolini handled them deftly and created his own huge narrative that never seems to drag despite approaching 900 pages in hardcover.
It is hard to avoid simply comparing the book to so many science fiction inspirations, because it does draw on them so frequently. A major part of the book features Kira with the crew of the Wallfish, a delightful collection of personalities and inside jokes that cannot help but bring to mind the delightful “Firefly.” But, again, it’s not as though that television series is the first or only to have an intrepid crew taking on somewhat shady jobs in space. Writing a review, though, how do I avoid making so many references? I can’t. In fact, part of the delight of the book is seeking out some of those references and debating whether they are intentional or not.
Paolini, though, is not content to give readers the warm fuzzy feelings of recognizing implicit or explicit references to other works of science fiction. No, there’s an incredible tale in this novel that continues to throw plot twists at the reader each time one gets settled in. Think that a major revelation wraps up most of the conflict in the book? Think again! What’s astonishing to me, though, is that none of these major twists reads in a way that is unbelievable or contrived. No, they make sense within the overall flow of the novel, and continue to drive the reader on. I was amazed as I read the book (and then immediately listened to it on audiobook afterwards) that I never felt the plot meandered or had pacing issues. It’s a huge book, and some lulls are inevitable, but none of these made me want Paolini to pick up the pace. The lulls were welcome respites in between the heady, galaxy-defining events happening.
The novel is also chock full of themes worth exploring. What does it mean to be a self? A certain alien species surprises when they reveal that they don’t mind their “selves” going off and dying, because an original copy exists back home. Once again, a subversion of a somewhat common sci-fi theme, but it also begs the question: how would the sense of self change if we could extend ourselves through the stars? Or, what if we could extend our physical bodies in new ways? What about moving on from significant loss? When and how is it okay to do so?
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a magnificent achievement. Paolini has created a space opera worthy of any fan of the genre reading. For readers just wanting to enjoy the ride, the impressive cast of characters, inspiration from other science fiction works, and timely injections of humor will continually delight. For those looking more deeply, there are enough themes to keep one entertained for hours afterwards. I highly recommend it.
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