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The Stars Are Legion by Kameron HurleyThree and a half stars

Buy from IndieBoundOne part action-packed space opera, one part quest odyssey, and one part body horror, there has never been a science fiction novel quite like The Stars Are Legion. Some of its antecedents aren’t difficult to pick out, to be sure. But Kameron Hurley has made of them something all her own.

The Legion of the title is a system of world-sized organic spacecraft surrounding a dim and hazy star. The principal “worldships” are home to two warring families, the Katazyrnas and the Bhavajas, although feel free to call them the Hatfields and the McCoys if it’s easier to pronounce. The worlds themselves are dying, rotting away from a kind of planetary cancer. Control of the rogue worldship of Mokshi is now the focus of the ongoing war, each family convinced that it contains secrets that will save the Legion.

Zan is a warrior who has returned to the Katazyrna homeworld after another attempt to penetrate the Mokshi’s defenses robs her of her memory. She learns that she has some manner of relationship to Jayd, either as sister or lover, and that Jayd has been betrothed in a political marriage to Rasida, a ruthless Bhavaja general, in exchange for a truce. But Jayd and Zan have been cooking up a plan of their own to take control of the Mokshi together. This is rather spectacularly derailed when Rasida immediately betrays the terms of the truce, wipes out most of the remaining Katazyrna clan, and casts Zan deep into the lowest levels of their worldship to be recycled with the rest of the biomass.

Now Zan finds herself undertaking a journey back upwards, in the company of three new companions, some of whom are from deep-level societies Zan never knew existed, and who in turn are completely unaware of the two families, or their system-wide war, or even the fact that they’re living deep inside giant organic spaceship in the first place. Jayd, meanwhile, is left alone to determine how to carry out her plans, while wrestling with the uncomfortable complication that she may really be in love with her captor, Rasida.

It’s possible some readers, hearing that this novel is a space-opera with an exclusively female cast, will dive into it expecting a fun Star Wars-y all-girl romp through the spaceways. It’ll be easy to spot those readers, as they’ll be the ones who make it to chapter fourteen and end up curled into the fetal position under half a dozen blankets, mewling like kittens. As anyone who’s read The Mirror Empire or God’s War knows, Kameron Hurley specializes in nasty women and a bit of the old ultraviolence, and if any space opera recently has had a more graphic and intense first 120 pages, I haven’t read it. There are scenes here, particularly one involving Zan’s encounter with a “recycler monster,” that are gory enough to make David Cronenberg sick to his stomach. But there’s something about the sheer audacity of what Hurley is willing to put on the page, coupled with her skill at staging tense action, that makes it all (to me, at any rate) riveting entertainment. Let’s be honest: when Zan repairs her damaged fighter ship by harvesting a fresh chunk of intestine from the nearest available corpse, it’s a scene that would be awesome anyway, but here, it has the added bonus of being consistent with the rules of Hurley’s world-building.

And what a feat of world-building this story is. Much of it, such as the origins of the Legion itself, remains cloaked in mystery, but we understand that those aren’t the story’s important questions. The concept of biotechnology, popularized over the years, is given its most complex realization here. The humans who populate the Legion are all female because they are not a species of human in which sex selection has evolved like it has for us. Women become pregnant through parthenogenesis, on a cycle determined by the worldships themselves, and are even able to swap wombs with one another, though it does require a bit of surgery. So it isn’t like loaning your roommate your favorite top. Also, only certain wombs give birth to human children. Most give birth to whatever tool or replacement part the world might decide it needs. And rarely, some wombs can give birth to a new world.

There’s a problem, in that Zan’s odyssey back to the world’s surface feels overlong and too slowly paced, especially set against the book’s pulse-pounding early scenes. Zan’s journey of discovery, which is less about the oddities of the world around her than about who she really is, has a number of compelling moments, some of which manage to channel Zelazny’s Amber stories. But it can feel like it’s taking forever. Jayd’s story thread, by comparison, feels underutilized. There’s a real tension in play in Jayd’s scenes with Rasida, who is a cool and charismatic villain. But the bulk of the novel’s midsection is devoted to Zan, who climbs, and climbs, and fights off some new peril, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Still, Hurley pulls everything back together for a rousing finale. The Stars Are Legion may be tough going for any number of reasons. But the road to self-discovery, and the path out of darkness from war to peace is never an easy one, and Kameron Hurley has never flinched from portraying that honestly in her fiction. This book will leave a bruise or two, but it’s a challenge you’ll feel proud to have met.