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The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt3 stars

Buy from IndieBoundI was extremely excited to hear of a new space opera series — his first, I think — from Tim Pratt, especially as I was so fond of his criminally underrated Marla Mason urban fantasy series. Pratt has proven himself to be a fount of terrific ideas with imagination to burn. And this quality is very much on display in The Wrong Stars, a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. But the results are so uneven that the book feels, paradoxically, both overdone and underdone.

It has a story that moves at a breakneck pace, but conveys little dramatic urgency. Our heroes are tasked with nothing less than the salvation of humanity and all other intergalactic sentient life, but it never feels like they face any real threats or obstacles in fulfilling that goal. Although, speaking of our heroes, they’re enormously likable, doing that spaceship-crew-as-found-family thing. And Pratt does allow this story to feel self-contained, meaning that if you don’t choose to follow the rest of the series, you’ll get a more-or-less complete story here, without cliffhangers or dangling threads making you feel obligated.

We’re 500 years in the future, and Kalea “Callie” Machedo is the captain of the White Raven, a vessel running salvage, skip-tracing, criminal investigation and various other contracted jobs way out at the solar system’s rim for the Trans-Neptunian Authority. One such salvage mission results in the unexpected rescue of the Anjou, one of several “goldilocks ships” sent from Earth centuries before, to explore the stars in search of a new home for humanity as conditions back home became more and more intolerable. It makes no sense this ancient vessel would be floating around in trans-Neptunian space, with only one of its crew members aboard in deep freeze. But things get even stranger when this person — biologist Elena Oh — is thawed out and awakened.

First, Elena is unaware that over the centuries since the goldilocks ships were launched, not only have environmental conditions on Earth taken a turn for the better — meaning that humanity in the solar system is in something of a full-blown species renaissance — but first contact is a thing of the past as well. Humanity has been trading, and living in a precarious kind of harmony with a far-flung alien species called the Liars, because despite being pretty nice trading partners, they are pathologically untruthful about any and every topic you might care to discuss with them, including themselves. This makes Elena’s shocking news, that she and the crew of the Anjou encountered alien life, slightly less momentous.

But, ah-ha! According to Elena, she and her crew encountered different aliens, mysterious unseen beings who drew the Anjou into one of their vast, anthill-like space stations. There, horrific, indescribable modifications were made to the Anjou as well as some of its crew, before Elena was able to escape alone. One of the ship’s modifications, a featureless black cube, seems to have the unheard of capability of creating its own wormholes, and the mere sight of it is enough to terrify every Liar aboard Callie’s home base of Meditreme Station into jumping onto their ships as fast as their tentacles will carry them.

So far, so intriguing. Pratt has created an impressively complex future here, with a convincing historical timeline and a truly fantastic conception of alien life in the Liars. And there are some dazzling visual moments worthy of Peter F. Hamilton. There’s an embarrassment of riches here for space opera junkies, as Pratt ticks off nearly all the boxes that remind us why we love these stories in the first place.

But there are storytelling choices that make me scratch my head. Pratt sometimes tries a little too hard with his characters. They’re likable enough as they are, so having them anachronistically referencing Harry Potter and other present-day pop culture in their dialogue just calls attention to itself, and not in a good way. Pratt is also ham-fisted about telegraphing a budding romance between Callie and Elena, which feels kind of odd as it is, considering Elena (in her own sense of time) only lost her crew within the past day, including one member she was in love with. Pratt builds up their flirtation for half the book, before rushing it to a foregone conclusion so everyone can get on with the business of finding out what happened to Elena’s crew and what possible ramifications it might have for humanity in general.

It turns out, there’s a pretty big danger indeed. But the last hundred pages, despite a fantastic setting, have Callie and her crew encountering not one but two arch-villains, both of whom get to enjoy their “Before I kill you, Mr. Bond” moments before being dealt with surprisingly swiftly. It’s a bit underwhelming, as if you’ve fought your way to the end of a fairly challenging video game only to beat the final boss battle with a single headshot. And lest I forget, all of the action in the book’s second half is initiated by a catastrophe in space that could be adequately described as about twenty September 11’s happening at once. It’s a monumental disaster, yet the characters never seem to react to it with the seriousness it deserves. The deed is done, and it feels like no one has a shred of gravitas.

Still, I find myself feeling not too judgmental in the final analysis. The book has a light tone that allows me to take it as rather easygoing, comfort-read space adventuring, the kind of escapism where I can let some shortcomings off easy because the whole thing is giving me warm fuzzies. My affinity for the crew of the White Raven, and the moments of genuine, impressive invention Pratt brings to his story, leave me looking forward to boarding this ship for its next chapter.

Followed by The Dreaming Stars.