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To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini2 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsWhen Christopher Paolini burst onto the publishing scene in 2003 with Eragon, he wasn’t yet out of his teens, and he made the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest author of a bestselling series. At the age of 37, Paolini released both his first science fiction novel and his first novel for an adult audience. Weighing in at a densely packed 880 pages, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars shows Paolini throwing himself, body and soul, into his new creation as never before. With the vastness of interstellar space as his stage, Paolini is determined to make as much of this story as he possibly can. And if the book succeeds at anything, it’s in the way Paolini puts his own sense of wonder on bold display. “Sense of wonder” is the phrase science fiction fans have held practically as sacred scripture since the Golden Age. A great science fiction story should strive to convey our sense of awe and our humility towards the infinite majesty of the universe.

So what’s the problem, Thomas? Sadly, it must be said, the book’s very ambition is what trips it up. Despite the story’s immense scale, it feels less like an epic than a relatively simple tale bloated out of all reasonable proportion. Paolini’s respect for the legacy of classic science fiction, and the work of writers like Clarke and Asimov and Niven, is evident in the work he has put into establishing some scientific plausibility in his universe-building. He’s clearly researched his physics and celestial mechanics, adding several appendices to the back of the book to show all that off. One of these appendices is a timeline of events (very much a Larry Niven kind of thing to include), revealing that Paolini has built what used to be referred to in science fiction as his “future history” in great detail.

But when the plot gets down to business, it’s mostly an epic fantasy in space, centered on a magic item that follows no apparent rules other than to do whatever our heroine, Kira Navárez, needs it to do to solve whatever crisis the story is throwing at her at that particular moment. Sure, in this way, the book isn’t doing anything Star Wars hasn’t done. I think we’d all agree even Star Wars has had as many misses as it’s had hits. I was really rooting for this book. I really was. But despite all of Paolini’s efforts, and my own, mostly it just put me to sleep in a sea of words.

Kira Navárez is a xenobiologist working as part of a research team (that includes her fianceé Alan) on Adrasteia, an uncolonized moon surrounding a remote gas giant. She has a bright future to look forward to, but naturally, it’s all about to be taken away. As the team is preparing to pack everything in and go home, one of their survey drones pings on something unusual and Kira goes to check it out. She finds herself in an ancient alien structure, possibly left behind by a mysterious race known only as the Vanished, whose Great Beacon (definitely one of the cooler concepts Paolini has created here) was the very first alien artifact discovered by humanity.

But there’s something else inside this structure as well. No, not a xenomorph face-hugger, but a kind of semi-sentient, nano-particle construct that emerges from the floor of the structure and wraps itself around Kira’s entire body. Attempts to remove it from her prove disastrous, and in no time, the military swoops in, subjecting Kira to a nonstop barrage of exhausting tests to gauge exactly what this material is, how it is interacting with Kira’s body and vice versa, and what its tolerance levels are. Flowing all around her form like a kind of liquid metallic dust, the alien material — which we learn is called the Soft Blade — hardens to protect her from any kind of projectile that might injure her, and extrudes fearsome spikes in response to imminent threats. Eventually, it will do much, much more, and Kira will learn, if not how to control it, how to at least reach an understanding with it. But she will never be rid of it.

The trouble is only starting, though, as suddenly, aliens attack, determined to claim the Soft Blade for themselves! Finding herself, after much chaos, among the crew of the privately owned transport ship Wallfish, Kira is propelled on a galaxy-spanning race to both uncover the secrets of the Soft Blade and defend humanity against a ruthless alien onslaught that seeks nothing less than our total annihilation.

Paolini has said in an interview that he wanted To Sleep in a Sea of Stars to feel like an entire trilogy packed into a single book, and all I can say is, dear God, mission accomplished! Even by the wary expectations I typically have of novels pushing the thousand-page barrier, To Sleep is an often exhausting experience. I wish I could give it better credit for at least being pacey, but the sheer volume of it all has led Paolini to give it an episodic plot structure, which renders an uneven sense of pacing at best. Even reviews that have been a lot more favorable to the novel than I’m being here have noted that the whole thing could easily have been broken into at least two books, to its benefit. But mostly, what begins to wear on the reader is a sense of repetition in the action. From about the halfway point, a pattern emerges in which Kira and the Wallfish crew travel to a destination in order to accomplish some task, the aliens attack almost immediately, our heroes escape by the skin of their teeth, rinse and repeat. It starts to become numbing after a while: attack, escape, attack, escape…

The aliens are called “Jellies,” after jellyfish, because they have tentacles, and they have tentacles because those are what all space monsters have if your imagination hasn’t taken you much farther than Lovecraft. Paolini is known for, to put it politely, his borrowings, and there’s frankly little he offers in this book that we haven’t seen someplace else. The crew of the Wallfish is, naturally, the millionth variant of the Firefly-inspired found-family spaceship crew of lovable misfits, led by Falconi, the macho captain with a heart of gold. The rest of the crew is acceptably diverse, and, to Paolini’s credit, they do rise above their stereotyping to become likable as individuals. In fact, you’ll be most likely to enjoy this novel and forgive it whatever other shortcomings it has if you’re someone who reads for characters over plot. (Paolini’s habit of revealing their individual backstories simply by having Kira ask them — “So, tell me about yourself, what’s your story, how’d you end up on this ship, how’d you get those scars…?” and so on — just made me chuckle after a while.)

If the book has a standout character, it’s not a person, but part of the Wallfish itself. Gregorovich is a “shipmind,” an actual human brain integrated and grown into the ship’s systems. Shipminds, developed in part due to a failure to perfect actual workable AI, are perhaps Paolini’s most inspired concept in the novel, although I question the logic (not to mention the wisdom) of allowing them such total control over a ship’s operations that even the captain can become irrelevant, and the entire vessel put at risk if the shipmind decides to go full HAL 9000 on everyone.

But the appeal of Paolini’s characters is not, in the end, sufficient to overcome the book’s two biggest flaws: the excessive, bombastic, seemingly endless barrage of battle scenes against utterly faceless foes that dominate the entire second half of the book, and the use of the Soft Blade as basically pure magic that transforms Kira into a ludicrous combination of comic book superhero and quasi-divine savior. The Jellies, as well as a second alien race called the Nightmares or the Corrupted, are like video game zombies, rushing at our heroes in endless waves, simply to be slaughtered. The story does give us one Jelly character who allies with the Wallfish crew as a representative of the Knot of Minds, a faction of rebels among the Jellies who wish to make peace with humans so they can combine their forces against the Corrupted. But this doesn’t change the fact that such villains as the Great and Mighty Ctein and the Maw aren’t actually villains, they’re just final bosses. They have no motivation but to destroy, and no function in the story but to be destroyed. I mean, the best space opera villains are memorable because they’re actually characters, you know? (Darth Vader, anyone?)

Nearly the entire final 150 pages of the book are given over to an extended action sequence centering on these boss fights. It’s all so overblown it makes a typical Michael Bay movie look subtle. I wasn’t thrilled so much as worn out and bored after a while. Space battles are most exciting when they serve as a story climax toward which a book’s plot has been building readers’ anticipation. (A superb example I can think of, in addition to the Death Star assault, would be the battle scene at the climax of David Weber’s first Honor Harrington novel, On Basilisk Station.) But Paolini piles on a series of climaxes, one after the other, until the whole affair gives you a headache.

And the Soft Blade is just creating magic to a degree that pushes well past the ridiculous. At one point in the story, Kira gets one of her arms severed, and the Soft Blade just molds itself into a new one that she can control as if it’s completely natural. That’s pretty neat. But during one of the final battles, Kira’s entire body is nearly blown in half by a Jelly mine. Her intestines are literally spooling out of her abdomen, but no problem! The Soft Blade just reels everything back in and patches her up. And don’t even get me started on the “gift giving” scene in the denouement, in which Kira presents each of her companions on the Wallfish a special token the Soft Blade has made for them, which can of course magically do whatever that person most needs in their life. I mean, Kira at this point is just Glenda, the Good Witch of Oz!

For its whole first half, the story was really shaping up to be interesting when it looked like it was going to be about Kira learning how to adapt to a strange, advanced symbiotic alien technology. But once it’s clear the Soft Blade is just a Magical Everything Device that ultimately transforms her into something like a god — well, what’s interesting about that?

The Wallfish had a pet pig on the ship. Would have liked to have seen more of him.