In the wake of the Sad Puppies controversy at the Hugo Awards, Feminist Fiction will be looking at and reviewing every possible nomination — looking at merit without regards to politics. For more of my thoughts on the Sad Puppies, read here.
The Dark Between the Stars is the first in a new sci-fi series by Kevin J. Anderson, set twenty years after his previous multi-volume epic, The Saga of the Seven Suns. It's one of the books put on the Hugo ballot by the Puppies, and it seems to support the argument that they're simply after supporting "traditional, fun science fiction." It's a sci-fi epic, a Song of Ice and Fire in space, covering a vast world with a huge cast of characters, with a focus on being fun.
I was at a major disadvantage with this one, as I hadn't read any of the previous series, but the book did a good job of catching up those of us who were new to the world. I might have missed things that a seasoned reader would spot, but I never felt too confused by the novel's world -- an impressive feat.
Unfortunately, the novel had two big problems that, when combined, made me give up reading it at the halfway mark.
First, the book simply has too many perspective characters. There must have been more than twenty in the first half of the book alone, and even at the 50% mark, new perspectives were cropping up, so there may be even more by the novel's conclusion. Although some perspective characters showed up multiple times, many only appeared for a chapter or two. Many of these seemed to be characters from the original series, so spending a single chapter in their heads may be enjoyable for readers who know them well, but for me, it made things seem crowded and unfocussed.
The character hopping felt like a stylistic choice to focus on the world and the plot, rather than on a few characters and their journeys. That might suit a lot of readers, but I prefer to have a smaller number of characters to really connect with, no matter how sweeping the plot might be.
But this leads into the second major problem with the book. The writing style suggested a focus on plot, but in the first half of this 700 page book, nothing really happens. I haven't given a plot summary of the book in this review, because there isn't one.
Because yes, things happen. Occasionally, they're even dramatic and compelling things. But they don't build up into a plot.
Fifty chapters in, the main conflict seems to be emerging -- it's still not fully appeared, but there have been hints, a sense that something is Wrong on a universe level -- but there are probably only four chapters in those fifty that are necessary to telling that story. Including a few different plotlines that will tie into the main story later is fine, but if I've read 350 pages of a book, I want a pretty good sense of what the main plot is, and an investment in it coming together. All I have at chapter 50 are ominous hints and a sense of foreboding that almost none of our many (many) perspective characters have encountered yet.
And this was definitely exacerbated by the number of characters and plot threads. There were a few dramatic and really engaging moments, but they'd be followed by many, many chapters following different plot threads, and when we finally returned, it would often be to find that months had passed in the world and that the dramatic plot thread wasn't going anywhere immediately after all.
In the end, I just didn't feel grounded anywhere in the story, even after hours and hours of reading. It may all tie together in a satisfying way by its conclusion, but reading even half of the book was a huge time commitment without much payoff, and so although the writing is decent and enjoyable, I won't be putting in the time to find out what the second half has in store.
Not a Hugo worthy book for me, but one that may well appeal to others, depending on their narrative tastes.