Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review - The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Short review: Zan has no memory, but Jayd assures her that her destiny is to claim the world of Mokshi. Then things get brutal and weird.

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Some books are simply difficult to review. The Stars Are Legion is one of those books. This is not due to any deficiency in the book, but rather because, to a certain extent, even discussing what makes this book so very good will ruin the reading experience for someone. This is a book with secrets inside of secrets, and following along as the characters uncover the answers to them is a significant part of what makes this book so fascinating, in large part because the answers both feel so naturally correct, and are so unexpected at the same time. This book is, in many ways, a masterpiece of misdirection and discovery packed into a gripping space opera complete with armies dueling in the coldness of space, monsters to evade, political intrigue, romance, betrayals, and revelations.

The central characters in the story are Zan and Jayd, ostensibly two lovers and co-conspirators working on a plan of sorts to take control of the Legion by conquering the world named Mokshi. The story is told from their perspectives, with chapters alternating between their respective viewpoints. The mystery in the story revolves mostly around exactly what that allegedly shared objective is, because at the start of the book Zan has lost her memory, and the only information she has is that provided to her by Jayd. This makes Zan something of a stand-in for the reader, as she has essentially exactly the same amount of information about the world as the reader does, but it also introduces an element of uncertainty, as neither Zan nor the reader can ever be sure that Jayd is actually telling them the truth. This uncertainty is compounded by the fact that Jayd assures Zan than it is better that she not remember her past, because when she remembers, she goes insane.

Hurley is an uncompromising writer who simply throws her readers into the story without much in the way of explanation, trusting that they will be able to figure out her world as the story moves along. In The Stars Are Legion, this style enhances the effect of Zan's confusion, putting the reader alongside the memory-impaired protagonist as she moves through a world that is alien and at times bewildering. This also works well when the story is told from Jayd's viewpoint, as Jayd spends much of her time plotting and scheming, but little time thinking about the ultimate objective of her intrigues, or what the larger meaning of her actions might be. The net effect of this chaos is a story that feels completely immersive, while also feeling disjointed and frightening. Zan fights, struggles, and otherwise endures for reasons that, for the most part, she doesn't understand, working towards an unknown goal. Jayd, for her part, provides almost no illumination on these subjects, holding her cards so close to her own chest in an almost paranoid self-defense, terrified to give anything away, even to herself. The only real guidance the reader receives, apart from the discoveries made in the story by the characters, is brief quotes from "Lord Mokshi" found at the beginning of each chapter, and even those serve to heighten the feeling of unease and and disquiet that permeates much of the book.

At the outset, Zan is told that she and Jayd are part of a family of warriors named the Katazyrnas, and they are in conflict with another family known as the Bhavajas, both named after the worlds they inhabit, floating among the many worlds of the Legion. But the worlds each family inhabits are slowly dying, and to tilt the struggle in the Katazyrna's favor, Zan is told she must seize the rogue world Mokshi, a feat she is told she is uniquely suited for, although she is not told why. Through twists and turns, Zan and Jayd are separated, with Zan embarking on a journey through Katazyrna, while Jayd finds herself trying to survive among the Bhajavas on their world. In the course of their respective journeys, Zan discovers that she (and the other Katazyrnas, and many of the other people in the Legion) may not truly understand the living worlds that they inhabit, while Jayd discovers that her plans and schemes may not be quite as clever as she had believed them to be. These voyages of discovery form the heart of the story, and through them, Hurley lays out how the assumptions made by the characters lead them astray, but also how they react when they are shown that what they believed turned out to be wrong.

While Zan and Jayd are at the center of the book, the supporting characters that surround them are what gives the story its emotional and intellectual heft. Through her travels Zan acquires a retinue of companions, each pushed outside of their comfort zone by the journey, and each responds in a different manner to the unknown. Das Muni, Casamir, and Arankadash each leave their familiar haunts and accompany Zan as she works her way through Katazyrna, but each makes this choice for a different reason, and each deals with the world in a distinctly different way: Where Casamir is curious and adventurous, Das Muni is timid and afraid. Casamir relies upon what she views as science, while Arankadesh places her trust in faith and tradition. Each of them has a perfectly reasonable basis for their world view, and yet each of them also brings wholly irrational prejudices to the table as well. Jayd's story has fewer truly compelling characters - her plotline is dominated by Anat, the leader of the Katazyrnas, and Rasida, the leader of the Bhajavas, and how the two women wield their power in very different ways. Most of Jayd's story revolves around the sacrifices one must make for their goals, and how even the best laid plans can go wildly awry if one miscalculates the intentions of others.

Lurking even behind the obvious set of supporting characters is yet another layer - the worlds themselves are alive, and in conjunction with the mysterious and misshapen witches, influence the course of events in accord with their own needs and designs. While many imagined science fictional universes contemplate a future in which biological elements are replaced by clean mechanical processes, Hurley's future is messy, full of living (and dying) biotechnology. The worlds are alive, and the women who inhabit them (and all of the inhabitants are women) are not so much living symbiotically with them, but are an integral part of their functioning, necessary to replace parts of the worlds as needed. This reality gives the entire story a somewhat creepy, and definitely icky feel, which is enhanced by the fact that no one, except maybe the witches actually understands how the worlds everyone lives within work, or how they are connected to the women in the story, and if they do know, the witches aren't telling. Like everything else about the world in The Stars Are Legion this seems to be calculated to be as disorienting as possible, putting the reader on edge throughout the book. This effectively puts the reader in much the same position as Zan, and serves to heighten the tension that one feels when reading the book.

The book only has one real misstep, and that takes place close to the end after Zan and Jayd undergo their respective journeys, when the book is reaching its climax. At that point, a narrator of sorts appears on the scene to basically do a giant exposition dump, explaining the meaning of much of the story. This scene is so at odds with the tone of the rest of the novel that it feels jarring, almost like Hurley got to this point of the story and decided it was time to wrap things up in a few pages. Given the strength of the storytelling in the rest of the book, this is a somewhat minor quibble, but it does stick out, and since it is near the end of the book, it leaves a lasting impression.

The Stars Are Legion is a deeply unsettling book, but it is deeply unsettling in one of the best possible ways. One of the best things done by good science fiction is that it takes fanciful ideas and explores the full range of their ramifications. In this book, Hurley tackles a number of such ideas and takes them to their completely logical, although completely disturbing conclusions. Even though the story doesn't really have a happy ending, it does have a satisfying one. Even though this book is often creepy and disturbing, it is a glimpse into an intriguingly designed world full of complex and fascinating characters, and overall it is an excellent read.

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  1. I really liked this. It's definitely on my Hugo list for next year.

    1. @Bonnie McDaniel: It is the best 2017 book I've read thus far.