Having read all of The Inheritance Cycle series, I was curious if I would like Christopher Paolini’s writing better since he was an adult and several years have passed since he wrote these novels. Plus, I was intrigued by the synopsis of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, which sounded like an epic sci-fi story with a badass female protagonist named Kira. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get through this novel. Reading it was a struggle as there were tons of pacing issues, very shallow character development, lots of telling and not showing, strange metaphors, and it suffered from the classic case of a male author not knowing how to write a female. As with The Inheritance Cycle, I also never felt any tension while reading the few what-should-have-been climactic parts of the novels.
I was determined to finish this novel, but I found at around 40% of the way though the galley, I simply could not go on. It took me 8 days of forced, painful reading to get even that far. Though The Inheritance Cycle had the benefit of dragons, which is obviously more to my taste, I found that the allure of the science fiction elements of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars was not enough to get me to finish reading the novel. I found that the novel really didn’t add anything new to the science fiction genre. In fact, the beginning of the novel seemed almost exactly like the movie Prometheus, but more poorly executed. Kira, a xenobiologist is part of the League and of a team that thoroughly researches planets to see if they are habitable for future colonization for humans. Right before she’s about to leave, she researches a strange grouping of rocks, and climbs into a mysterious looking crack of the same unknown material, only to fall right into a dome-like room clearly created by aliens.
"Her apprehension deepened. It really was the nightmare scenario. They'd finally made contact with another sentient species, but the species was hostile and able to fly circles around any human ship, even the unmanned ones."
Kira is knocked unconscious, forgetting everything that happened to her. The readers remember that the last thing she saw was a black dust swarming her, and choking her. When she wakes, she is covered in an alien suit, and accidentally murders every single one of her teammates with it, including her fiancee, Alan. Kira is picked up by a military ship, and tortured, before they are attacked by an alien race referred to as Jellies--perhaps the most non-threatening name for aliens ever--which destroys their ship. Frustratingly, though she gets in an escape shuttle, Kira wants to save the other survivors who tortured her, in a frustratingly goody-goody move. She has literally no dimension other than to hate how she looks now that she’s bald and covered in an alien suit. She doesn’t give much consideration, except a passing thought not to think about it, to the fact that she murdered the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with and to whom she just got engaged. No PTSD, no guilt motivating her every action, or anything remotely realistic--she has virtually no issues compartmentalizing all the people she murdered and the alien war she started. Laughably, Kira suggests someone else sees a psychiatrist, but never stops to think that she should need one.
"Just like with--She ground the heels of her hands against her temples and shook her head. Don't think about it. Even if she'd played a role in first contact, blaming herself for the war wouldn't help. That way lay madness."
Kira’s picked up by yet another ship, where she lies about the circumstances of the suit she’s wearing, and the fact that she killed practically everyone on her first ship. She stabs and impales a refugee of the ship who breaks her nose and is instantly forgiven. None of it makes any sense. The crew of the ship, the Walfish, is full of Archetypes rather than actual characters with dimension. There’s the tried-and-true tough captain who takes questionable jobs to put fuel in the ship and money on the table--there’s a buff former marine passenger named Sparrow--think Private Vasquez from Aliens--there's also a ship mind that is supposed to be a Jarvis-like figure and that we are repeatedly told is eccentric--and a bunch of other forgettable plot devices, er, crew members that are ripped from better science fiction media. There's also a pet pig and cat on the ship, and the whole thing feels like a desperate attempt to create a rag tag group of people that will be much beloved, like Firefly, but I simply could not care less about a single person or animal in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars.
"Everyone messes up. How you deal with it is what determines who you are."
The constant ship jumping through space, torture, and alien spacesuit may sound somewhat exciting, but really nothing of note happens in this book except in the very beginning. Sure there may be some fights with aliens, but there’s no tension. You know Kira and her alien suit--apparently called The Soft Blade, of all things--will overcome everything and everyone will immediately move on with no lasting repercussions. Get badly injured in a fight with Jellies? Regrow your organs and limbs with stuff printed from a 3D Printer. Most of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is spent flying around on different space ships and deciding where to go next, with Kira convinced she is the only one who can save humanity, while incessantly lamenting that she has to wear the suit, even though it constantly saves her life. She’s shallow and completely unlikable and what men love to refer to as a Mary Sue. I had to laugh when the novel started referring to Kira as the "fury of the stars," as all she ever does is murder people and internally and incessantly complain about every little thing that's happened to her. What's worse is this is the method that the reader finds out about everything in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars--we are told, and not shown, through Kira's internal venting.
"No one--not even the Soft Blade--ought to be to be able to dictate what she could do with her body. If she wanted to get a tatto or become fat or have a kid or do anything else, then she damn well ought to have that freedom. Without that opportunity, she was nothing more than a slave."
The actual point in this novel that finally got me to say “no more” was when I hit the really low point where the classic male author writing a female character became indigestible. The first cringe-inducing experience was when Kira decides to “explore” where the alien suit covers her body and the author tells the reader that she has to stop herself from masturbating due to the weird sensations of the suit--and this occurs right after she escaped torture and you know, murdering her fiancee. Doesn’t really seem like the time to be in the mood. But I thought maybe it was a fluke, so I kept reading. Near the 39% mark in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, Kira starts experiencing pains in her abdomen. We are told by the author that the suit has turned her periods back on, even though she had them turned off years ago, because it thought that there was something wrong with a woman having control over her own body. But it’s great because the author tells us she doesn’t have to deal with pesky bleeding because the suit covers her vagina fully! And if that’s not bad enough, he then goes on to detail to the reader how she can never have sex again, because she’d have to exert the willpower to pull the suit back from her genitals, and then if she lost control, it might cut off the man’s genitals. I literally could not believe what I was reading and how I was reading it.
Why did the author think that any of this was something he should just tell the reader in a TMI info dump? Kira is run through tons of experiments and torture by doctors who want to learn the secret of The Soft Blade. But none of these factors were discovered during these experiments, and the author just has Kira tell the reader. Instead of Kira, I don’t know, maybe wanting to have a baby with her stupidly bland fiancee Alan, who she “made love” with more than once before she murdered him, and revealing that she might not be able to give birth to her dead fiancee’s child due to the suit covering or any kind of somewhat logical plot, we just get dumped this strange information through the narrator, who I already couldn’t stand. I was appalled by how desperate the story was to have Kira be a virginal messiah/martyr figure even though she was murdering people left and right and finally quit reading To Sleep in a Sea of Stars at this point.
"Kira hated that expression: Homeworld. Technically it was correct, but it just felt oppressive to her,as if they were all supposed to bow down and defer to those lucky enough to still on Earth. It wasn't her homeland. Weyland was."
There just wasn’t anything that interested me enough to keep going. Sure, it was kind of cool that the Jellies used scent as a language, but Kira just knows this because of her suit. There's no mystery or tension as she tries to figure out communicating with her nose. Likewise, the world-building was pretty much an afterthought. We know that affluent humans live on Earth and colonized Venus and are expanding outward in colonization efforts run by the galaxy League, which controls mostly everything. There are some people who choose to worship numbers, others who are great lab researchers and are super weird and call everyone “prisoner.” We know Kira worships a god named Thule, but we never learn anything about it--she just constantly takes this figure’s name in vain. Likewise, Kira grew up on the planet Weyland, but we never learn anything of note that sets the planet apart from other colonies, except that her family still lives there. I would've been interested in seeing how Kira’s upbringing was different from ours or what her education was like, or what a normal life was like in a colony, but nothing like that is ever alluded to, at least in the 40% of the novel I read.
What's more, is To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is peppered with strange metaphors like “her voice [was] as hard and as rough as broken stone,” that took me right out of the boring story and made me think things like--how hard was the stone really if it broke? Another one that struck me as weird was "without the xeno, she'd be all the more vulnerable, a shell-less turtle waving its legs in the air, exposed before it's enemies." It's so bizarrely specific and out of place in a science fiction novel to refer to turtles, especially when the narrator didn't grow up on Earth, the home planet of turtles. You’d think in a space story filled with attacking aliens, I’d be more interested in this war than with oddly chosen metaphors, but nope. Sadly, nothing about the writing is on par with other heavyweight contemporaries of the genre. And that fact that To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is marketed as a “space opera” is laughable to the extreme.
The one attempt at romance, between that of Kira and Alan--who was as bland as the name Alan in a science fiction novel that spans the universe--was so vanilla and basic. Alan is never fleshed out at all, except as the perfect guy for her, who was also nerdy and seemed to anticipate her every want and need. When he proposed to her, she instantly responded “Yes, a thousand times, yes.” Not only does literally no one talk this unnaturally in real life, it’s repulsively and saccharinely trite and unoriginal. The rest of the dialogue was similarly artificial. I will give the author kudos for trying to add diversity to his story by including a lesbian romance between the Walfish's crew members, but with the caveat that it was a pre-established relationship that wasn’t elaborated on at all and was kind of just thrown into the novel for giggles or to fill the diversity quota.
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars was just not for me. I couldn’t get past it’s portrayal of the female protagonist, lack of tension, the pacing issues, very little character development, lackluster dialogue, and strange metaphors with an insufferable heroine. I think the only people who will enjoy To Sleep in a Sea of Stars are going to be superfans of either Christopher Paolini, or people who indiscriminately adore any and all science fiction novels.
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