Mapping the Stars: A Review of The Forbidden Stars, by Tim Pratt

Science-fiction is one of the most versatile genres of fiction around, capable of combining settings with any other tale.  Science-fiction as a genre is also a bit of a misnomer.  The average science-fiction story is not just science-fiction.  Tales can be action films, adventure stories, romance, horror, and more.  From Blade Runner to Black Mirror, from Polaris Rising to Foundation.  Science-fiction can be defined by both fun and thoughtfulness, and there is always a place for a fun adventure that does not require readers to analyze every paragraph.  Books like The Forbidden Stars, Tim Pratt’s third novel in the Axiom trilogy, show the importance of such escapism while also taking the opportunity to define a possible future.  While entertaining, the novels also take some time to normalize behaviors and lifestyles, sexual orientations and body modifications.  Science-fiction lets us see all futures and revel in them.

The Forbidden Stars does not take place too long after the events of the previous novel, The Dreaming Stars.  The series follows the adventures of Captain Callie Machedo and her crew of the White Raven, a group of mercenaries and privateers.  In the first novel of the series, The Wrong Stars, Callie and her crew accidentally discovered the existence of an ancient, powerful alien race known as the Axiom.  Every known, living member of this once devastating race is now in stasis, awaiting various experiments around the galaxy to come to fruition.  Tired of endless civil war and fearing the end of the universe, the Axiom sleep while their experiments find a way to free them from the universe’s eventual heat death.  Callie and her crew, over the course of the first two novels, have witnessed the horrors these extraterrestrials are capable of, and have taken on the mission to destroy them while keeping their existence a secret.  Rightfully fearing their awakening, the crew ended The Dreaming Stars by making contact with a mysterious Benefactor willing to help them in their fight.

The Forbidden Stars takes our heroine and her crew to the far-off Vanir system.  In this future, another alien race known only as the Liars introduced humanity to a series of hyperspace bridges, leading to systems the Liar’s believe unoccupied by Axiom experiments.  Once such colony system, Vanir, was lost when ships stopped returning through the gateway one hundred years prior to the story.  Assuming the problem to be with the hyperspace gateway itself, humanity gave up on rescuing the stranded colony, and Vanir has remained as a ghost colony.  Working off a tip from their Benefactor that a possible Axiom target lies in the Vanir system, Machedo and her crew use the various technological marvels they have discovered to sneak into the system, discovering that it is still inhabited.  A rogue faction of Liars loyal to the Axiom have taken control, and the remaining free human descendants mount a dwindling and ineffectual resistance.  Using their advanced technology, and the colony’s isolation, Callie and the crew is able to mount a successful fight and begin taking out key targets throughout the system, all the while trying to locate the sleeping Axiom and end their dreams.

Pratt’s series has held a fascination with body horror which has remained throughout all three novels.  There are graphic descriptions of the results of experimentations, and two crew members, Drake and Janice, had their bodies fused together before the start of the series.  However, the novels always make it clear that the horror is not in the modifications themselves, but rather the unwilling nature of the experiments.  The engineer of the White Raven, Ashok, has transformed himself into a cyborg, and sees his body as being in a constant state of work and upgrade.  His upgrades, while shown as being a little disconcerting to other people, are never portrayed with the same revulsion as unwilling subjects.  Drake and Janice, while initially unwilling subjects, willingly subject themselves to further experiments in an effort to fix past mistakes.  Due to their willingness to accept the changes, the event is portrayed as an improvement and their qualify of life is heightened.  While never explicitly stated, consent is key.

In between the action, adventure, and alien intrigue sits a romance.  Prior to the start of the series, Callie had gone through a divorce and had never entered into another serious relationship.  Enter Dr. Elena Oh, the ship’s medic in training and executive officer.  A human from centuries past, Elena was one of many colonists sent out in cryostasis before the introduction of the hyperspace gateways.  Elena is in many ways a way for the audience to insert themselves into the story as she, more than other characters, feels the closest to our time.  Beginning the first novel as an attraction and a flirtation, the romance between Callie and Elena has grown into the backbone of the series.  A couple very much in love, it is rare to see a fictional relationship portrayed in such a way.  These are two characters deeply in love who never fight.  While they do disagree on occasion, the characters love and respect each other too much to say or do anything damaging.  The Forbidden Stars does something many fictional mediums fails to do, which is keep a loving and supportive couple interesting.  Rather than losing stream upon entering a serious relationship, their love only strengthens the story.

Despite everything, there are criticisms to be found of The Forbidden Stars, mainly in how the conflict of the story is resolved.  Everything seems much too easy for the main characters.  Callie is in possession of a personal cloaking device and short-range teleporter.  Ashok’s cyborg body, coupled with his intelligence, can construct any machine and control any system.  Their ship’s AI, Shall, can copy himself into combat drones and assist in the field.  Their ship, the White Raven, also possesses a portable hyperspace gate generator, negating the need to use existing pathways.  These characters are easily able to take out their targets and utterly destroy and entirely enemy fleet without cause for concern.  Conflict is resolved swiftly, and there is never a question of failure.  Rather, we read to see how they will, not if they will win.  Even when the stakes rise and the danger becomes a littler more serious, it never feels as if any character is in real danger.

Despite any flaws The Forbidden Stars may have, this is a great addition to a growing series of exceedingly fun novels.  The main crew of characters are all interesting, and it is fun to see them succeed and be very good at what they do.  There is always room for competence porn in literature.  On top of the adventure, there is also a healthy romance at the heart of the book.  Callie and Elena show how well fictional relationships can be portrayed, and their love defines so much of what makes these books work.  If you love science-fiction adventures with a dash of romance and cast of fun characters, then this is the perfect relaxing adventure read for you.

The Forbidden Stars can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 6 days

Next on the List: The Girl the Sea Gave Back, by Adrienne Young

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