Book Reviews

Review: Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

I know this seems backward when I was just talking about Cytonic yesterday, but reading that sample reminded me I’d totally forgotten to put my review of Starsight up!

Book: Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Publication date: 26th November 2019

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Gollancz. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: violence and death; allusions to anti-abortion rhetoric.

All her life, Spensa has dreamed of becoming a pilot. Of proving she’s a hero like her father. She made it to the sky, but the truths she learned about her father were crushing.

Spensa is sure there’s more to the story. And she’s sure that whatever happened to her father in his starship could happen to her. When she made it outside the protective shell of her planet, she heard the stars–and it was terrifying. Everything Spensa has been taught about her world is a lie.

But Spensa also discovered a few other things about herself–and she’ll travel to the end of the galaxy to save humankind if she needs to.

I always do my best with sequels to try to avoid spoilers for the previous book, but I think reviewing Starsight will make it impossible to avoid talking about the twist in Skyward, because everything in this book hinges upon it. I’ll try my best, but if you haven’t yet started this series, you should go and read Skyward first – take a look at my review if you need to be tempted!

So, where Skyward was a pacey story of a plucky young girl battling the odds at a training school for spaceship fighter pilots, Starsight deals with the fallout from Spensa’s realisation that things are a little more complicated than that. In book one, she was literally trapped on her planet; in book two, she’s able to break out of that prison (albeit in disguise) and discover that there’s a lot more to the universe than she thought. It’s definitely not a rehash of book one, which may be a positive or a negative depending on your expectations! The story becomes more of a mystery, as Spensa tries to infiltrate the Superiority (this universe’s Federation-style conglomerate) and work out what’s going on with her planet. There’s still lots of flying, fighting action, but I felt that the pace slowed down a bit and there’s a lot more conversation and space to breathe. Occasionally, I thought the dialogue got a little repetitive, with key points being stated multiple times across multiple conversations as though to make sure we really understood them; I wondered if this was because it’s aimed at a slightly younger audience, but just because a book is YA doesn’t mean its readers aren’t taking information in.

I really enjoyed seeing the universe open up, and seeing some of Spensa’s prejudices get broken down in the face of alien civilisations she’d never heard of. We’re not limited to humanoids with extra bits; this is a really interesting world with characters as varied as crabs piloting robot exo-skeletons and one race which is literally just smells. Things are still very focused on Spensa and a small cast of new characters, with occasional interludes from the humans back on Detritus, which keeps the feel very personal even as they deal with universe-changing plot. M-Bot continues to be a delight (although again, a slightly repetitive one), and is by far my favourite character!

There was one element of this book that I found really uncomfortable to read, though: there’s a subplot that seemed to me to have a lot of anti-abortion dogwhistles in it. It’ll be hard to discuss without spoilers, so here’s your warning to skip the next paragraph if you want to…

One species of alien is called ‘diones’, and when they reproduce the two parents literally merge forms to make a 50/50 mix of their bodies and personalities, and pilot this new being, a ‘draft’, for five months as an experiment to see if they would like their hypothetical offspring. If their offspring is suitable, they will be gestated and born as a separate being, but will retain their memories from their test run. If they aren’t suitable, the parents break the merge and try again until they get a variation they like, erasing all the ‘draft’s memories and existence. Spensa finds this shocking and sad, but her dione draft friend explains to her several times that it’s totally normal for them; I thought this was going to just be another example of Spensa’s limited world-view being challenged, except that she keeps pushing the issue in multiple conversations, until her friend admits that no, they don’t want to be destroyed and would like a chance to be born (“I do want to be born” is a direct quote). Later (and we’re getting really spoilery now), their family attempt to coerce then shove them into a womb-like pod to be reconstituted (ie, killed), and they break out of the pod in a very birth-like scene and head off to literally save the day. This felt to me rather overwhelmingly like a metaphor for unborn babies pleading to have a chance to be born, and the idea that abortions kill babies who might go on to do something heroic like cure cancer, which you see a lot in real-life anti-abortion rhetoric. I’ll also note that in doing this the draft denies their parents the right to autonomy over their own bodies, which… has obvious parellels. If I’m being generous, I could say that this is a subplot about acceptance and having the right to take up space no matter how ‘wrong’ you are, but the overall vibe felt much more sinister than that to me. I’ve long known that Brandon Sanderson and I do not share much in the way of personal ideology (to put it mildly), but this whole subplot put an extraordinarily bad taste in my mouth, and really soured my enjoyment of the book.

For all my complaints, the overaching plot of this series is really intriguing, and Spensa and M-Bot are compelling characters to follow. Having been lucky enough to get a sneak peek at the opening of Cytonic, I’m very excited to read on! Three and a half out of five cats.

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