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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

The Stars Undying by Emery Robin (reviewed by Caitlin G. & Shazzie)

 

Official Author Website
Buy the book here - U.S. U.K.
 
OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Emery Robin is a paralegal, recovering Californian, and sometime student of propaganda and art history living in New York City.
 
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A spectacular space opera debut perfect for readers of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice and Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire, inspired by the lives and loves of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.

Princess Altagracia has lost everything. After a bloody civil war, her twin sister has claimed not just the crown of their planet Szayet but the Pearl of its prophecy, a computer that contains the immortal soul of Szayet's god. Stripped of her birthright, Gracia flees the planet—just as Matheus Ceirran, Commander of the interstellar Empire of Ceiao, arrives in deadly pursuit with his volatile lieutenant, Anita. When Gracia and Ceirran's paths collide, Gracia sees an opportunity to win back her planet, her god, and her throne…if she can win the Commander and his right-hand officer over first.

But talking her way into Ceirran’s good graces, and his bed, is only the beginning. Dealing with the most powerful man in the galaxy is almost as dangerous as war, and Gracia is quickly torn between an alliance that fast becomes more than political and the wishes of the god—or machine—that whispers in her ear. For Szayet's sake, and her own, Gracia will need to become more than a princess with a silver tongue. She will have to become a queen as history has never seen before—even if it breaks an empire.
 
FORMAT/INFO: The Stars Undying was published on November 8th, 2022 by Orbit Books in the U.S and on November 10th, 2022 by Orbit in the U.K. It is the first book in the Empire Without End series and is written in first person from the protagonists' POV. It contains 528 pages and is available in hardcover, ebook and audio formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Caitlin): Altagracia was suppose
d to have inherited the Pearl of the Dead and assumed the throne of her planet Szayet as the Oracle of their god. Instead, she’s in hiding, fleeing a sister who stole the throne from her. Gracia’s options are limited, until Commander Ceirran of the Empire arrives hunting a traitor who has hidden on the planet. Ceirran couldn’t care less about a civil war on a backwater planet, but Gracia is willing to do whatever it takes to make herself an irresistible ally. Regaining her throne may cost her more than she bargained for, however, as attaching herself to the most powerful man in the galaxy means thrusting herself into politics that could come with deadly consequences.

The Stars Undying is a contemplative political sci-fi, light on action but heavy on musings about immortality and what makes a human soul. Thankfully, lead characters Gracia and Cierran are engaging enough to stop such musings from becoming dry theory discusssions. These stand-ins for Cleopatra and Julius Caesar are as arrogant and calculating as you might expect; lovers, sure, though more lovers of the power each represents than a true kind of soul love. (I do wish it had taken longer than literally five minutes after meeting for them to have sex. Foreplay is its own power game.)

I admit, I floundered to get my bearings for the first several chapters as this is a book that drops you into a galaxy with no guide as to the players or the dynamics. It took me a good while to get straight that Szayet was a planet and that Ceiao was an empire that Szayet was in and Sintia was another planet entirely but for some reason everyone spoke Sintian instead of Ceiaon. A little more sign-posting or even a glossary would have been helpful, especially when discussing the complicated history of Szayet and its Oracles. The language in this book could be a bit flowery and intentionally vague at time, which made it harder to parse some of the world-building.

Once Gracia and Ceirran meet, however, the story becomes easier to follow. As the book jacket professes, this story is inspired quite a bit by the real-life exploits of CleopatraJulius Caesar, and Marc Antony. Anyone familiar with their histories, or who has read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, will see the broad outline of the plot beats coming, though the author has found plenty of ways to create their own story within this framework. (And indeed, she even uses the audience’s familiarity of the story to build tension towards the end of the book.) Antony has been gender-flipped to a female character named Anita, a charismatic loud-mouth captain with a penchant for deliberately being uncouth or ignoring decorum just to get a rise out of people. And yes, just about everyone in this story is some degree of queer.

The writing style of The Stars Undying is akin to something you’d find in a more classic style memoir; the chapters alternate first person POVs between Gracia and Cierran and are full of long sentences and wistful descriptions of their home planets. While this style absolutely fits the setting (the cultures feel like Roman society was simply dropped into space), it contributes to the more languid pacing of the book, an aspect I found a weak point. The Stars Undying has an absolutely engrossing beginning and end, but the middle is sedate, content to let Gracia and Cierran go on a quiet royal tour of the planet while contemplating life and immortality. It left me wondering a bit where things were going, and I had to push through this middle section to get to the juicy ending.

CONCLUSION (Caitlin): The Stars Undying is the kind of sci-fi story perfect for those who like headier themes. It cleverly plays with the audience’s assumptions and even dabbles a bit in unreliable narrator, as it becomes clear that this is a story being told to a third party and not all details are being revealed at first blush. You won’t find action sequences, but you will find debates, political maneuvering, subtle manipulations and plenty of scheming, with philosophical discussions layered on top. Best of all, The Stars Undying is a complete story, though a sequel has been announced. If you’d like to sit back and contemplate immortality while a planet grapples with its past and future, this may be the political sci-fi for you.

 


OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Shazzie): Before I talk about the content within the pages, I would like to say that this is one of the smoother printed copies I have held in my hands. The art department at Orbit has done a great job, and it will likely be a while before I get over the way it feels. We need more glossy books, right?

This is a politically charged space opera that is based on the well known stories of Julius CaesarCleopatra and Mark AnthonyAltagracia is supposed to inherit the Pearl of the Dead that contains Alekso Undying's soul from her father, or so she believed, until her sister stole the throne from her, forcing her to flee, regroup with a bunch of supporters, and try to reclaim what should rightfully be hers. Her options don't seem like many, until she meets Ceirran arrives on their planet in search of a traitor. Though he does not find the civil war on her planet to be a concern, they enter into a relationship that does not come without consequence for either of them. We also have a gender-flipped version of Antony called Anita here, who is a Ceirran's caption with a habit of ignoring decorum, who has quite surprised me with some of her choices in this book.

I struggled to read the first few chapters, simply because it was hard for me to follow who was who, and I don't think I still get some things straight. This is clearly not a book meant to be an easy read, this is one I would recommend for those who are willing to put in a sufficient amount of focus and mental energy into getting some of the details straight to be able to follow the story. I did ask Caitlin "What is Alectelo?" at some point. I did not know what was a planet, what was a city, and I felt that a reference in the book would've been immensely helpful in this process.

Speaking of the worldbuilding, it is pretty well done, but also vague. The language can be a little long-winded and descriptive at times, possible leaving out many details on purpose. The first chapter might have been the hardest, simply because I felt like I was dropped right in the middle of a chase, but as the story progressed, there were past timelines that helped me calibrate my expectations to settle in better, and gave me a better understanding of certain character motivations and actions. What didn't help though, what the unreliable narration on Gracia's part, because she had a tendency to narrate a big story and then simply declare that she lied, or that she would fill in certain details later, which sent my thoughts scrambling.

This book contains many discussions about faith, ideology, and human nature, with them being central to the execution of the plot. It is hardly a plot-driven story, but it is interesting to see how these ideas drive the characters to do what they do, and their discussion of the same concepts are engaging enough to fit into the whole narrative. The narration is cleverly done with the more classic style of prose with some descriptions of the character's home planets, and in what seems to be a successful attempt at not underestimating the reader. There are no expositions, and I found that I had to simply trust that the author knew where they were taking the story.

The pacing is a little inconsistent, and I found a few instances of repetitive phrasing. While the start is strong, and the end is stronger, I found the middle a bit of effort to get through, and it mostly contained our main characters travelling as they thought of morality and heavier themes.

CONCLUSION (Shazzie): Overall, this is a pretty satisfying debut that contains some heavy themes. It reads a little bit like a full story, but I know I will wait for the sequel. It has plenty of cunning machinations, along with some fascinating discussions and plenty of drama. If you are fond of any of these, then don't hesitate to give it a try. 

 

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