In Wicker King author K. Ancrum’s new book, a girl named Ryann Bird, forced to reckon with difficult circumstances after the deaths of her parents, meets a new arrival to her nowhere-town, Alexandria, who has painful connections to a Voyager-like deep-space mission. As she begins to fall in love with her, and learn the truth about her past, the starry-eyed ambition of space exploration reveals its true nature.
The Weight of the Stars is a book that has to cross the gap between ordinary life and the surreal and weighty prospect of humanity’s future among the stars––if it even exists, as we all hope it does. It does this with a broad and subversive point of view, one that allows for “crossing the frontier” to be both a sacred duty and a cause for despair.
Where Ancrum briefly depicts life in outer space, it’s visceral, with a deep, full-bodied sense of what it means to be utterly stranded. Transmissions from the deep-space mission arrive in the form of distant radio signals, and in Ancrum’s brilliant epistolary sequence, their tone grows darker and more desperate as Earth creeps further and further away.
Ryann, of course, is a marvel––not just for her characterization but for her circumstances. In Ryann Bird, K. Ancrum writes a teenager more-or-less living in poverty, who has no plans for college, and hopes to graduate with a 1.5 GPA, as opposed to YA contemporary’s chorus of middle-class overachievers––but she exists with scholarly interests, with hope, and with humanity. She ends up trapped in the “why aren’t you in AP science” conversation at one point, but at no point is life allowed to seem as if it’s passing her by because of her prospects, because, as Ancrum makes clear in the rich, perplexing way her book grapples with teenage life, it isn’t.
In Ryann’s love interest, Alexandria, Ancrum demonstrates remarkable skill in writing loneliness that in many ways is the novel encompassed. Alexandria’s face is the hopeful one on the cover, and she’s the lone rooftop listener to distant radio signals, waiting for the words of a mother she never got to meet. She’s the main victim of picturesque, space-like emptiness as it manifests on Earth, the consequence of the impulsive desire to leave everything behind––but desperately in love with the idea anyway. In The Weight of the Stars, Alexandria gets to be a soul rife with tension about her own future and a battleground for ideas. If science is the marriage of skepticism and wonder, Alexandria and the past she is faced with are what happens upon their messy divorce.
The way despair upon exploration nags at people, especially Alexandria, is very convincingly executed in The Weight of the Stars, and just enough to pull at the threads of all our childhood astronaut dreams, and then, after much deliberation, restore them.
Space exploration literature, especially the poetic kind, has this habit of relying on the human spirit and the noble beauty of things yet to be known, and while The Weight of the Stars isn’t this wide-eyed embrace of the cosmos in kind, it does seem to be a medicine the wayward, space-loving teenager might need in the middle of the night, in a light-polluted city, with not a visible star in the sky.
Ancrum mentions in her dedication that The Weight of the Stars was written “for all of us who looked up at the sky in wonder, and then cried when we realized how much calculus separated us from the stars,” a sentiment vastly echoed among many a science fiction-lover, and a despair present in the dark vacuum of space’s likeness. Strangely enough, when the grandeur of outer space fades, the distance it leaves behind is what occupies starry-eyed thinkers with no penchant for physics: here we are, trapped on Earth again, by loneliness and radio signals that can’t carry, and the stars’ weight pressing down on us all.
(God, I wish I were good at math.)
This review was originally posted on Goodreads in 2019.