Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle was one of those formative fantasy series that really began my obsession for the genre. I remember seeing that blue dragon on the cover way back in middle school, and it drew me in the same way that the bow and arrow drew me in for Kristin Cashore’s work. Like Cashore’s novels, Paolini’s series was one that I followed avidly as it was published, and reread every summer through high school.

But, unlike Cashore, I haven’t really read them since. They were good, but they didn’t hit the same way that Cashore’s novels did.

Paolini said in an interview that his Inheritance Cycle was a love letter to the fantasy genre he’d grown up reading, and that his new To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is his love letter to the science fiction genre. But, despite science fiction’s and fantasy’s many similarities, I’ve never been a huge fan of the former. (The absence of dragons and archery was always a pretty major setback.) Even so, after the influence Paolini had on my love for the fantasy genre, I felt like I owed it to him to give his newest sci-fi novel a try.

It was a long novel, even for me, and full of things I wanted to talk about, hence why I’m dedicating a full post to it. But no worries! As with all my reviews, this will be spoiler-free.

General Review

Synopsis

Several centuries in the future, xenobiologist Kira Navárez is helping a crew of specialists study the surface of a new planet in order to determine if it can settled. On their last day, however, Kira is sent out in a final, routine search where she inadvertently finds something incredibly dangerous. She won’t know until it’s too late just how dangerous it is. Before long, the entirety of humanity, and all life everywhere, is under threat of annihilation. Kira may be the only one who can broker peace, and with her newfound crew, she may just have a chance. But one old, rusty ship may not be enough to face two massive alien armies.

Review

The novel’s biggest pitfall is its pace. It’s not really until part two (150 pages into things) that I even had the remotest inkling on what direction Paolini was going to be taking the plot. From there, the novel does continue to meander, although at least there’s a sense of destination. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars will probably never have you sitting at the edge of your seat, eager and insistent to know what happens next.

Despite it all, however, by the time I reached its conclusion, teary-eyed and hopeful, I had to say that it was an easy five stars. It felt almost like what the conclusion of Wheel of Time was supposed to feel like–with high stakes, impossible odds, and a lengthy narrative to match–but executed far better. This is most certainly a book for readers who like character-driven novels, because the official synopsis wasn’t lying; there’s a lot Kira has to learn about herself and about humanity as a whole. And although there were plenty of times I thought to myself, Couldn’t this have been split up and made a series?, by the end, the pacing, and the nature of the conclusion, felt like it could not have ended any other way.

Below, I’ll go into more detail about some of the other elements that I loved, but it’s enough to say that the world-building (I suppose I should say worlds-building) was beautifully done. It’s obvious, too, that for all Paolini’s insistence that this is a love-letter to the sci-fi genre, there’s still small nods to our fantasy genre too. He even uses the term graceling in one chapter, and I refuse to believe that it’s not an homage to my favorite series. Even the character’s journey through the book mirrors Cashore’s own narratives.

Recommendation

This is not going to be a book for everyone. I’m not familiar enough with the science fiction genre to know how common this sort of slow-paced venture is, but I can guess that it’s relatively rare. For my fantasy readers, I can only say that those who liked Wheel of Time and Graceling both would probably find themselves hit by the narrative almost as powerfully as I was. Honestly, the only fault I found was that it would have been easy to give up early on, or halfway through, and if you don’t have the patience for such things, this probably isn’t the book for you. But everything else, from the character work (and I don’t just mean the protagonist; I mean all of the characters) to the setting, and of course the conclusion, makes it otherwise worth the read.

A Few Thoughts on Setting

There were a few things that Paolini did in this novel that I really appreciated as a fantasy reader who loves the world-building aspect of speculative fiction. I’m going to keep it as generalized as possible because this is a spoiler-free zone, but I still wanted to talk about it because these are things that I would love to see more of in the future.

A Steadfast Reliance on Known Technology

Paolini’s Ancient Language magic system of his Inheritance Cycle was very much rooted in rules and restrictions to prevent the magic from ever feeling like a deus ex machina. The same went for the science and technology introduced in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. The science-fiction shows I’ve seen have always tried to leave a little bit of wiggle room with the tech to allow for miraculous escapes down the road if needed.

Paolini doesn’t follow that trend here. Although there is some alien tech whose full potential remains uncertain until the very end, that potential is never used to save the day. In fact, there are multiple instances where ignorance of that tech results in fatal or near-fatal casualties. Furthermore, even the faster-than-light travel, the healing technology, the sciencey overlays, etc., are all rooted in our current understanding of that tech. FTL travel is not instantaneous; it can and does still take time to reach far corners of the galaxy.

This all leads to a certain realistic flair to an otherwise wobbly understanding of the technology. And it never feels overly complicated. There were a few descriptions of the science that were easy to get lost in, but it never felt like a Doctor Who-esque “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey” description where it was intended to lose the reader. Kira herself gets lost in the mechanics because, as a xenobiologist, that sort of technology just isn’t something she studied or has any reason to be familiar with.

Language Barriers and Culture Clashes

One of the reasons I love the fantasy genre is when I get to see a world full of vibrant detail, especially when there are different cultures and different languages. How this sort of thing is handled depends on the author, and on the needs of the plot. Paolini set himself up to have the tech that would allow for easy translations, and yet he doesn’t. Because when it’s not just language that separates two people, but very distinct cultures, literal translations aren’t always enough to clarify anything. Paolini uses it to generate realistic conflict rather than make it easy for his characters to get out of a bind.

There was one instance in particular where Kira was asked to serve as a translator between two characters to fix a technological issue. But while the two characters have a very good understanding of their own version of the tech, their versions don’t mesh together well, and Kira doesn’t know enough about that particular branch of science to help explain the differences. The easy route would have been to have the translations account for intent and discrepancies in tech, especially when this particular conflict doesn’t have a huge bearing on the overall plot, but I appreciated that Paolini took a moment on what’s basically a very realistic language barrier.

Additionally, Kira’s mindset as a xenobiologist throughout the story made for an important theme: just because a culture is different does not make it inferior. She insists that the other characters make as small a mark on abandoned planets as possible. Not to such a degree as to make life harder on everyone else, especially with a war going on, but enough so to remind the reader that lasting peace cannot be attainable if we do not make an effort to understand the culture of those we’re up against.

One scene stands out in particular, and it may be one of my favorite scenes in the entire novel. Kira is speaking to a character from a vastly different culture than her own, and during the conversation, she asks the character questions about personal desires, etc. The character does not respond the way she expects, and Kira’s first instinct is to think it’s just a language barrier, because she cannot imagine her understanding of the character’s response could possibly be accurate. But what if it’s not an issue of language, but rather an issue of culture? I love that she stepped back and thought about it, reminding herself not to let her own inherent biases skew her understanding.

There was also another scene where Kira was talking to another character, asking her to describe what life was like on her home planet. The character reminded Kira that planets were big and asked her to be more specific. I know that many sci-fi novels and shows treat planets like countries, assuming any culture there would be homogeneous rather than have hundreds or thousands like Earth, and I just thought the exchange was funny, a wink to all the sci-fi lovers who have pointed out that particular issue so many times before.

The Passage of Time

Lastly, I just wanted to mention that part of the reason To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is so bulky is because the book spans the majority of a year. (I don’t know the exact duration of it, but I know at least six, maybe nine, months or more.) And although Paolini employs the sci-fi staple, cryo, Kira is still awake for a majority of that time.

As Kira travels through space with her new crew, she has to learn several new skills. There are these moments in between action, where the ship is traveling from one destination to the next, where Kira is given the space to learn these skills. Failure to learn these skills will have consequences–the stakes are established beforehand, giving Kira the motivation to buckle down and learn them–but I really appreciate that Paolini took the time to let Kira learn. The ending would not have been as satisfactory if we hadn’t seen the work Kira put in throughout the novel to reach that point.

I’ll admit, these moments did not help with the pace of the novel. But it did serve a purpose. Actually, it served two. In addition to building up towards the conclusion, it also helped establish the rules and restrictions for the use of specific technology. As a reader, it establishes what is possible and what is not so that, during scenes of conflict, I’m not taken off-guard by the full extent of the tech’s abilities.

Wrap-Up

If the ratings on Goodreads are anything to go by, most people did not share my love for the book. Like with the Wheel of Time, books like these are difficult to recommend because although it hit the right spot for me, I can see why a lot of people would find the novel too boring to enjoy. It is up to the individual reader to determine if the various arcs made the novel itself worth the time it took to read it. But I like to think that, despite what the market claims, not all readers are avidly searching for the next hit of fast-paced plotlines that leave the reader flipping pages so fast they’re almost tearing out pages. Sometimes, it’s nice to read books that just take their time to explore. It’s true that the beginning, especially, meandered so listlessly that it was tempting to drop the book completely, and I think that there might’ve been some room for improvement. But I also know that as I reached the last few pages, the words hit me so hard I started crying. And if a book makes me cry, well, that means it must’ve done something right.


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