Space is Darker Than Imagined in “The Weight of the Stars”

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.

The Cosmic and the Ordinary in “When the Sky Fell On Splendor”

What do we want from an alien encounter story? If The Three Body Problem and “Arrival” are any indication, we’re looking for a mirror to hold over the planet––we want to explore what we as a species would do in the face of uncertainty and crisis. We want to inspect a civilization with different starting conditions: run the experiment again, and see if anything changes. But, in the interest of full disclosure, these are high-stakes, hard sci-fi expectations. And they have no place in the pages of When the Sky Fell on Splendor.

The primary thing that separates Emily Henry’s novel from these stories is scale. A more traditional take on the alien concept is planetary and cataclysmic. When the Sky Fell on Splendor is intimate, and unshakably focused on the inner lives of its human ensemble. That’s not say to it lacks the deliciously vast cosmic gaze; the one that keeps us coming back for Doctor Who and PBS’s astronomy programming. It just folds it into quiet, ordinary lives, as per Emily Henry’s perennial fabulist gift: with the subtle aid of the supernatural, she writes small towns that feel infinite.

In The Love that Split the World, she vests a sleepy, dew-kissed Kentucky suburb with the makings of the universe. In A Million Junes, magic pours into Five Fingers, Michigan, a “thin” place between the Earth and the heavens, where the wondrous and inexplicable seep through.

Splendor, Ohio––though not as fondly regarded by its residents as the other two––is a welcome addition to Henry’s brilliant collection of little infinities, and the ways in which it stands out mark an intriguing new direction with regards to her crafting of settings. Splendor, with its derelict steel mill, crumbling old houses, and lone, job-market-dominating Walmart, is a slightly grimmer place than woodsy, romantic Five Fingers, but Henry still finds the space for heavy fog and moonlit fields, which she writes with careful precision, knowing at every touch just how precious they are. She manages to summon up a rousing batch of nostalgia for a town that her characters ceremoniously flip off every time they drive past its limits, but it’s possible here on different terms: it isn’t inherent to the place, and it isn’t a factor of chance.

All the value that Splendor holds is shared among people, either living or in memory, and though character is the indisputable heart of all of Henry’s YA novels, it feels particularly vital in When the Sky Fell on Splendor, both because the supernatural element here has a much slower build, and because the book grasps at a theme that has much more to do with the inherent un-magic of the small town everyone is trying to escape from than it does with the roving lights on the horizon.

When books try their hand at confronting the senselessness of real life, it often feels like a coy slap on the wrist as punishment for expecting narrative coherence (this is a thinly-veiled jab at Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). When the Sky Fell on Splendor, though, manages this quite well, as a work fixated on how cruel and unjust freak accidents, chance, and ultimately, circumstance, can be, as opposed to serving it to the reader as an act of subversion. It also mercifully refrains from papering over our main character’s craven past with the chance at meaning the mysterious happenings suggest; in fact, it cleverly poses them as a false lure, one that exposes the foibles of a few side characters, as they grasp at this chance to be extraordinary and it does not wholly provide.

In terms of genre, Henry nails the delicate fantasy-contemporary balancing act, tweaking the novel’s internal logic to accommodate the powerful forces of unknown origin, but not so much that it cheapens her characters’ lives by offering them up as sacrificial heroes. It is in this that she tells the bittersweet truth that lies deep in every genre reader’s mind: we want the call to adventure to change everything––but it might not.

How do we exist after that, knowing that the universe keeps wonders, and yet its illogic takes parents and futures and hopes all the same? When the Sky Fell on Splendor has an answer. It’s trite on paper, but in execution, it holds real gravity and it’s offered without a shred of irony in sight.

Human connection is really the key to surviving until the last page, and why shouldn’t it be––the book is centered by the strong ties of an electric young ensemble, and their conflict makes the ‘found family’ label feel truly earned, even though they’re already established friends by page one. This relationship, in other words, has a well-defined arc, and a legitimate, profound source of strife. All of this is brewing in the story from the beginning: we see it in unspoken words, forbidden topics of conversation, shared grief. This early scaffolding is what allows the central tenet of this work––that other people make life worth living, even if it is not ostensibly of cosmic note––ring so true. You feel it in every line of dialogue. You feel it in every inch of a mundane yet inestimably valuable place. You feel it in the way every small life becomes infinity.

“Violet City” An Empty Attempt at A Story of First Contact

When an alien invasion takes root in New York City, Pen Simmons, Violet City‘s teenage lead, remarks that it’s “like a big budget space movie has come to life over our heads.” She uses this point of reference often, as the novel progresses and its plot unfolds. Dead bodies roll down the pavement like stunt doubles, the destroyed city looks like a post-apocalyptic film set, and when she first encounters one of the aliens, beginning a tenuous alliance that later turns into something more, the whoosh of air rushing from the airlock of a spacesuit first enters her ear as something she’d only heard before in sci-fi movies.

It seems a trivial detail, but in terms of what it reveals about Violet City‘s execution as a work of science fiction, it’s critical. Page Morgan, ultimately, relies on the reader’s knowledge of pop culture as a crutch in building both the landscape of post-invasion Manhattan and the internal logic of the world of the Volkranians, her species of coldly logical, ruthless invaders. Rather than a deliberate entry into the genre, it feels like a collection of details assimilated from like sources––the vague trope that people panic in disaster informs every glance we get of post-invasion New York City, while the Volkranians are aliens of the wholly expected Vulcan variety: formal-speaking, human-faced, and only a hair’s breadth away at all times from offering up an explanation eerily similar to “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

This isn’t to say that alien invasion concepts have to be wildly original in order to be valid––rather that in Violet City‘s quest for broad appeal and familiarity, it neglects the opportunity to introduce something new. Even the execution of the book’s central hook, the budding romance between Pen and one of the invaders, whom she nicknames Rowan, is expected, snagging on conflicts even a casual viewer of sci-fi could predict at a glance.

The book also suffers from a severe dearth of proper scaffolding with regards to character: though it’s perfectly readable and its pacing moves at a fast clip, there’s something off at the heart of its planning, and it doesn’t reveal itself until the final act, where Pen takes several almost existential risks, and they all ring hollow because there’s nothing the story equipped her with that she lacked in the beginning. Though character work like this takes the back seat to the action of most stories, its skillful implementation is essential: a protagonist must substantially change, and the obstacles they face must be the catalyst for their doing so.

In one of the most important early scenes, however, Violet City has Pen jump to defend the life of an alien she doesn’t even know––and succeed. From there, though it’s clear the author wants to write a character whose morals and worldview change after getting close to the enemy, the approach has nowhere to go. Because the book opens by showing the reader that Pen is willing to act to protect one of the aliens, and can work up courage in the face of mortal peril, it renders all of the objections Pen has to doing the same later on entirely obsolete. Nothing’s at stake in the event that Pen fails. And the threat that she will is virtually nonexistent.

From here, it doesn’t matter when either of the major characters’ lives are in danger. It doesn’t matter when Pen gets the chance to abandon her shaky alliance and doesn’t take it. It doesn’t matter when ships crash or shots are fired or action tears through the pages. The story, in its construction, wants for everything a narrative needs to breathe.

When movies destroy landmarks and level city blocks, they do it because it’s a shortcut: when cities that loom large in popular imaginations turn to rubble on-screen, it evokes at least an echo of what a story would otherwise have to do to awaken that feeling. In some regard, it must work––after all, screenplays keep using it. But a shortcut is no substitute for real groundwork. I may have seen plenty of what happens in Violet City in a movie before, but that doesn’t mean it cuts closer to me once it transpires here. In fact, that might be the very reason it doesn’t.


Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy.

Photos by Andre Benz and Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash.

The Brilliance of Beth Revis’ Final “Across the Universe” Book

In Shades of Earth, a hundred-year interstellar mission finally comes to fruition––stranding its passengers on an unwieldy new planet with no way to reach home. Credits for the above collage are here.

What happens when a centuries long mission to an exoplanet finally arrives? In Shades of Earth, the final installment of Beth Revis’ sci-fi epic, for one thing, Earth has long since beat the colonists to it––and their prospects on this brave new world don’t look good.

The trilogy’s first two installments, Across the Universe (yes, after the song) and A Million Suns, explore a society formed on a generational ship, the Godspeed, over hundreds of years in isolation: various crises with no assistance from home have bred a tightly-regulated micro-dystopia, with drugs pumped into the populace to keep it docile and incendiary truths tightly guarded from view. The Godspeed has no captain, only a succession of absolute power through generations of clones who hold the title Eldest. Tensions come to a head, though, when the original members of the mission, scientists and military personnel who agreed to pass the centuries until arrival in cryogenic slumber, start mysteriously waking, and Amy, the daughter of a colonel, falls in love with Elder, a young leader-in-waiting who has yet to learn the worst of his regime’s secrets.

As it turns out, Godspeed has been parked at its destination, a habitable exoplanet dubbed “Centauri-Earth,” for some time, and as the ship falls into disrepair, disembarking emerges as the only path to survival. But Shades of Earth shows us a Centauri-Earth riddled with dangers––aside from the sharpening tensions between the ship-born inhabitants of Godspeed and the Earthlings just awakened from sleep.

Revis’ worldbuilding is a tightly-wound coil that never stops unfurling: personal drama is aplenty, but the past and its glaring omissions lend the trilogy most of its suspense. Every plot twist emerges from the ashes of history, in both earlier books and Shades of Earth, so it’s no surprise that Centauri-Earth is hardly what it seems. Layered under the struggle for survival in this volume is a deeper, sustaining mystery: the question of circumstance, and the truth of how it came to be. With both elements, the terror of an alien world and the whiffs of vague past catastrophe and possible conspiracy, Revis creates a stomping ground for her sci-fi that antagonizes the colonists in multiple ways, yielding a survival story that really uses its surroundings, not just as a force to struggle against, but as a source of revelation. It’s illuminating to dig in Revis’ sandbox and find the treasures she’s buried there––even more so that some of them take the whole book to uncover.

Those more stubborn details build to an even more powerful conclusion: when the real culprits, conspiracies, and causes are hidden, it is all the more compelling when the monster at the reader’s feet scurries away, and a deeper growl from above prompts them to look up, and meet the real one.

In Shades of Earth, power is cleverly nestled in its designs and machinations, sending the characters immediate threats and keeping them in the dark about its true nature. The structure Revis creates for this in her plot is layered, so rife with complete shifts in paradigm that the final reveals are a rousing breath of release. Though they may read as deus ex machina to some, these sudden, all-consuming realizations have a surprising thematic utility, one that can be found in the likes of Doctor Who. (It’s reasonable to infer that the show had a a direct influence on the work––the author’s notes in her short story anthology, The Future Collection, cite it directly.)

Doctor Who has boundless faith in human beings, so much so that its greatest heartbreaks happen when people fail to act as their best selves in situations of crisis that demand it, from paranoia in the episode “Midnight” to trigger-happy dealings with another species in “The Hungry Earth” and “In Cold Blood.” (All three of these are magnificent episodes, by the way.)

There are echoes of this in Shades of Earth, with devastatingly authentic depictions of peace gone awry. The book is defined by compassion when it comes to unpacking the unproductive tensions between ship-borns and Earth-borns: compassionate not only in understanding and forgiving their motives but also in terms of emphasizing how devastating this animosity is for everyone involved, and how it pulls attention away from the real source of harm. Here, Revis writes the ultimate tragedy: human beings too beholden to their nature to recognize the institutions and authorities that actually pose a threat. It has all the trappings of free will, with the tart smack of inevitability.

Revis does this especially well with Amy’s father, the Earth-born Colonel Martin, who reacts to the hostile environment and the ship-borns foolishly yet predictably. He has a compassionate side––it shows very obviously in his interactions with his daughter––but it isn’t enough to resist paranoia, and, in the tradition of tragic flaws, gets warped under pressure. It’s heartbreaking in him because it’s heartbreaking in everyone else. Shades of Earth genuinely believes its characters are better than this. It gets its gravity from the painful fact that they very often aren’t.

A Dystopian Trek in Ally Condie’s “Crossed”

Ally Condie’s YA dystopia, Crossed, and how it works as a sequel to the sleek, sanitized, Giver-esque world of Matched, its predecessor. (With a touch of poetry!)

Crossed, the second book in the Matched trilogy, sees Cassia, a heroine who only until recently trusted the word of her overbearing government, in a journey through the wilderness, in search of love, freedom, and a rebellion. Credits for this illustration are here.

Ally Condie’s 2010 YA dystopian, Matched, takes place in a highly-regulated, warped paradise of job assignments, planned deaths, and compulsory conformity, the workings of a faceless, monolithic Society in the far future, Giver-style. The Matching ceremony, the day on which the government presents to each citizen their predestined partner, plays a key role in getting Cassia, a familiar subdued, brunette, mostly complicit dystopian heroine, to question the system that’s kept her life safe and predictable lo these seventeen years, but by the end, she’s taken a second look at everything. The Society’s destruction of previous cultures. Its zero-tolerance approach to dissent. And, most urgently, at the end of book one, its swift and hushed deployment of her boyfriend, Ky, as a prop of its vague and unspoken war.

Crossed, book two, is the fallout of the possibility of resistance. In Matched, we follow a relationship mutually acknowledged to be doomed. In Crossed, where both Ky and Cassia are on the run, they have to deal with disagreements about the future they only recently realized they could have. What’s more, Cassia hears word of a rebellion brewing on the edges of the Society, the very one in which Ky, jaded by his family’s past, long ago lost faith.

It’s subdued and rather uneventful as far as sequels go––the Society, in Crossed, is more of a looming presence than, as it is in Matched, a mounting threat. In Crossed, Ky and Cassia, along with a few incidental others, trek through the wilderness to find each other, and, eventually, to find the already gathering forces of a rebellion, the Rising. This setup forebodes a laggy, unimportant middle chapter, but Crossed has a utility in doing what a plot summary would cast as useless loitering. It holds all the themes of Matched while taking some time to let the immediate danger of being pursued by authority air out in the wilderness. The same stakes are ultimately at hand, but they are examined here in a deeply personal lens. What’s more, the monotony of the Society ripens with an example to pair it against. Where the Society does appear in Crossed, Condie inextricably associates it with the destruction of the natural world, further codifying its slick, sterilized aesthetic: just the foil for the naturalism, figurative language, and poetry that defines her main characters, and their deeply-held, almost unconscious, need to rebel.

As either consequence or catalyst of this, Condie’s prose style is of the earnest, flowery variety, sparse yet heavy with metaphor: so much “ash and nothing into flesh and blood,” so much “a thought flitters into my mind like one of the mourning cloaks, the butterflies that string their cocoons along the twigs,” so much “my mother painted with water, and my father played with fire,” as to render it trite, cliché, and unbearably cheesy, but her characters are so fervent and her argument for agency so entangled with poetry and passion that it registers with striking clarity. The key to Condie’s invoking such drastic lyricism is commitment.

It doesn’t hurt, though, that she chose to set Crossed in the dramatic landscape of a canyon, the Carving, where bright red cliffs exist in stark relief beside dark, rushing waters, and consequently where her lofty prose style feels most at home. Ky, the melancholy, poetry-reading love interest, also happens to harmonize with the landscape––Condie makes it the site of his childhood and the tenuous middle ground of the issue that comes to define his newfound tension with Cassia: to, or not to, join the Rising. What Crossed does with the debate is a cut above the expected. Yes, it’s a dystopian trilogy, and the rebellion is a given, but where Cassia’s all in, Ky is rather uneasy, and what’s more, the Rising is far from the “natural” side in Condie’s natural-unnatural dystopian lexicon, and she foreshadows some discord between the Rising as a restrictive institution and the beliefs of the people who turn to it for hope. Two salvaged poems, Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” play a key role in the series, Cassia and Ky reciting parts of them like mantras. The Rising, however, has co-opted the metaphorical figure of the Pilot from Tennyson’s poem for use in their own propaganda, and it is only Ky’s suspicions––with his symbolic ties to the natural, the expressive, and the artistic––that put dents in the Rising’s promises before the thing itself even appears.

Cassia, on the other hand, is earnest and hopeful about this matter, nursing wholehearted faith in the future––and meets heartache when Ky doesn’t share her vision. She isn’t fully realized as a novel or startling heroine, but she is a fully-realized reflection of her upbringing, the Society’s purported ideals of justice and equality activated when they meet their authentic counterparts. The point is that she embodies the average of her circumstances reacting to a chance encounter with freedom, just like Ky embodies his ostracism, and reflects the want of creative freedom once had, and lost. This doesn’t make them boring or flat; it makes them painstaking extensions of their worldbuilding.

Likewise, Crossed‘s muted and internal nature doesn’t make it a pointless victim of middle book syndrome; it makes it a refreshing departure from a genre that demands armed conflict as resolution, and very rarely shifts all or most of its focus into how its characters feel about the matter. It’s a volume of careful thought and sustained commitment to its role as a meditative interlude. High-octane expectations gave the book mixed reviews upon its reception in 2011, but after YA’s wave of dystopian popularity has crashed, it’s worth revisiting what Crossed does with setting, character, and art: it takes a long, introspective trek through a canyon, as opposed to the straight and narrow path.

Thank you for reading! My name is Pippin, and this blog is my passion project for all things bookish (and, to be frank, mostly young adult sci-fi). I’d love to chat about this book, or anything else, really, in the comments: am I blinded by my teenage nostalgia for this book? Am I missing a killer dystopia that more people should read? Is Ky Markham too angsty? Tell me below!

Scott Westerfeld’s “Specials” Ends With a Flashy, Unnecessary Bang

Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops.

Young dissidents hide (and hoverboard) in the ruins of the 21st century throughout Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy. It becomes an especially important staging ground as the resistance gains momentum in the finale, Specials. Credits for this illustration are here.

This terminal volume in Scott Westerfeld’s foundational dystopia, the Uglies trilogy, follows a familiar tune.

The promise of earlier books, from the series opener, Uglies and its thought-provoking take on coming of age and its unfortunate implications, to the middle volume, Pretties, and its mind-bending complications, turn out to be too ambitious to sit comfortably in Specials‘ 350 pages, and too lofty to decisively resolve.

Tally, the teenage heroine who saw the cracks in the system in book one and suddenly found herself a part of it in book two, winds up yet again unwillingly modified by the government of her city, this time “enhanced” both physically and mentally into a man-hunting machine who can track dissidents like prey and do the government’s bidding with maximum efficiency.

The government in Westerfeld’s series doesn’t rule with an iron fist, exactly: it transforms its citizens into perfectly beautiful, perfectly brainwashed “Pretties” once they come of age. Constantly occupied with their cliques, parties, and thrills as a result of it, the policy of compulsory cosmetic surgery at 16 is the gift that keeps on giving––humanity is too infantilized to cause many problems or raise objections to the status quo. For the few that remain, the government has Special Circumstances, or “Specials,” on the opposite end of the surgical brainwashing spectrum, an agency with faces designed to elicit fear and its own distinct, government-implanted delusions.

Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops. From Pretty-isms like “bubbly” and “happy-making” emerge Special-isms like “icy,” and new internal logic that capitalizes on our characters’ needs to feel superior to the “bubblehead” Pretties to match.

Tally, however, has been fed indoctrination, questioned it, and overcome it two times over now, once in Uglies and once in Pretties, and Specials has her do it yet again, from the ground up. In spite of this hurdle, or perhaps because of it, Specials is the speed round version. It’d be reductive to spend the same amount of pages in the same battle––one that frustrated many readers when they met a bubbly, brainwashed Tally in Pretties with the clock turned back on her character development. In Pretties, though, her starting point is alien enough to make the battle discernibly different. Specials doesn’t add anything new: the surgery has brainwashed Tally before and she has recovered from it before. It’s a nearly identical struggle, in a slightly different flavor.

This is a valid reason that might make the sidelining of Tally’s struggle with her new identity a wise move. But Westerfeld’s deconstruction of the Specials’ superiority complex is the subject of the book’s most memorable scenes––including one very devastating kiss––and it injects crucial friction into a romantic subplot that otherwise fades into a dull thrum. But the book doesn’t decide what to do with it either way, leaving a well-developed subplot that, when the action deems it necessary, just disappears.

The “Specials” issue expires too early in part because, this being Tally’s final volume, we have bigger fish to fry. As the romance has the happily ever after, the dystopian has the collapse of the corrupt regime.

Westerfeld’s take on this front, even though it can sometimes feel like an obligatory conclusion, has a real streak of realism to it. Rather than making Tally the absolute mastermind, he taps her to play a small role in an ongoing shift that began before she decided that her political situation was bogus: Specials sees her dealing with auxiliary consequences and hurrying the gradual change along until her own circumstances see a breaking point.

This decision allows the scope of the dystopian world order to come across, but doesn’t put armies at a 17-year-old’s command to do it. In keeping with this, Westerfeld’s choice of self-governing cities as opposed to a massive totalitarian state or empire makes some interesting strides towards progress in this fictional world possible within this final volume, but overall the pace of revolution is glacial. It is effected by clandestine systems of couriers, and in a refreshing turn, Tally is important, but not the center of the world.

With all this in place, the threat of war that emerges in the final third of the book feels trite and excessive, less like a decision that truly befits Westerfeld’s fictional world and more like bending to the explosive expectations of a YA sci-fi finale. But the Uglies series, action-heavy as it is, has always been internally-driven at its core. When it isn’t, it’s fueled by relationships, rather than weaponry. The doomed friendship between Tally and Shay, an electrifying supporting character, centered the tension between the devotees and the free-thinkers in the previous two books, and Specials only begs for this third-act war plot because Shay is so noticeably absent.

The series succeeded in the past because of its interior, reflective nature, even in the face of all the sci-fi bells and whistles. That is where its impact is strongest. It’s not a political thriller––though Specials tries to incorporate that quality with its villain, Dr. Cable. It’s not a revolution story, either, and even though war appears, it’s not a war story. This isn’t something to fix with hard sci-fi optics. It’s something that, like it ultimately concludes about people, is better left unchanged.

Space Pirates and Price-Gouging in “Starflight”

Melissa Landers’ 2016 follow-up to her extraterrestrial foreign exchange student trilogy, Alienated, tragically ditches the contemporary element to make a full dive into space-operatic adventure. Starflight is the work of someone with a deep affinity for Star Wars, no doubt, and conveys some of those warm and fuzzy forged-family feelings––but something is undeniably lacking.

Melissa Landers’ 2016 follow-up to her extraterrestrial foreign exchange student trilogy, Alienated, tragically ditches the contemporary element to make a full dive into space-operatic adventure. Starflight is the work of someone with a deep affinity for Star Wars, no doubt, and conveys some of those warm and fuzzy forged-family feelings––but something is undeniably lacking in the plot department as it concerns a rocket-fuel-laundering scheme and some questions of world-building. As a space romp, common wisdom holds that some intrigue should be in store, but Starflight is almost character-driven to a fault: when it does answer act one’s questions, it mostly does so with an emphasis on efficiency and action, leaving much to be desired in the rich details supplementary to character that define works of speculative fiction. And Landers, by swapping out the present-day high school backdrop of her previous series, may have sacrificed her means to a laid-back, high-spirited series opener in the process.

Starflight opens with a promising set of foils: Solara Brooks, whose record is so tarnished and her funds so low that she has to enter indentured servitude on an outgoing vessel, and Doran Spaulding, heir to a gobsmacking technologies fortune and beneficiary of Solara’s dire straits. The dynamic between these characters at curtain is unbridled hostility, pure and simple. It even has a class component, which Landers cleverly teases at when an unexpected conspiracy charge puts the authorities on Doran’s trail and a series of increasingly chaotic decisions on Solara’s part reverse their fortunes and land them both on a sketchy pirate ship en route to unregulated territory. Solara now plays the wealthy heiress and Doran is comically shuffled into the part of servant.

What follows is an elaborate chase across hangars and tourist planets, pursued by pirates, bounty hunters, the government, and all manner of trouble.

If you can lose yourself in it, Starflight is an adrenaline rush of the hyper-speed variety, with just enough ready to crash at the present moment to keep your eyes away from the framework. When it’s not a dangerous trade with ruthless pirates for a much-needed part, it’s the secret a crew member has been keeping that’s suddenly back and wants her dead. The happenings––hijinks, shenanigans, catastrophes––never stop. As high-powered and rip-roarin’ as this setup is, it pries time away from the central plot that really demands the work, and this short term gain ultimately creates an unsatisfying resolution for the ur-hijinks that initially set it all in motion.

Doran Spaulding, no matter how much the burgeoning enemies-to-lovers dynamic demands, is still not entirely off the hook by the time the book resolves his conspiracy charges. This stems from a combination of factors, chief among them the sustained sidelining of this plot until the very end (the ensuing discovery abruptly smacking the reader with no warning) and Landers’ lack of commitment to the lawless and conflict-ridden galaxy she’s created––like cyberpunk, but with an escape hatch. This particular symptom doesn’t make itself known everywhere––Landers is particularly good at emphasizing the daily toll of being on-the-run, from stark spaceship rations to constantly being ready to jolt out of a planet’s orbit at a moment’s notice. Her commitment wanes, though, on a much wider scope.

As the ship where Solara and Doran have taken refuge approaches the outer rim, fuel prices, the work of the Spaulding empire, skyrocket. In one particularly affecting scene, Landers paints a portrait of life in the outer rim that’s downright punishing, but reform, when Doran himself considers the idea, is easy, obvious, and doesn’t present any significant obstacle. The pages spent describing the desperate state of affairs wouldn’t be a waste if these disparities––not to mention the vast gulf in wealth and opportunity between Solara and Doran themselves––were entangled with the fuel fiasco. But as it stands, Starflight‘s backdrop of inequality and infighting fizzles out without being examined. The intrigue that serves as the story’s foundation suffers in the opposite corner besides. As a result, the book’s aftertaste is empty, to a degree. You can almost sense the effect it might have had with a few stronger ties.

But the book is bolstered by a tight-knit ensemble, and one that’s given comparable attention to that of the romance. The crew of the pirate ship doesn’t make for a fast and easy found family, but one that develops slowly and with care––and not without conflict. By all accounts, this gradual and largely auxiliary element accomplishes the book’s most impressive feats of character. It isn’t simply that Landers is generous with the downtime it takes to form a bond: she also puts these platonic relationships through the ringer in a way that only romantic relationships in YA generally earn (if that). Trust is broken, boundaries are breached, suspicions are had. Despite the fact that Starflight adopts the “gritty” space-outlaw aesthetic without ever really paying for it, it manages to be truly charming. This is due almost entirely to the cast: beautifully crafted, and the perfect companions for such a wild ride.