Sunday, 16 December 2018

Review: Navigating the Stars

Navigating the Stars Navigating the Stars by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now this is decent sci-fi.

I very much enjoyed the author's first fantasy series (the Poison books), largely because of the viewpoint character, a determined, capable young woman who had to overcome considerable challenges and did so with bravery and determination. I enjoyed the Glass books less, largely also because of the viewpoint character; I remember her as whiny. Here, we're back to a snarky, imperfect, but ultimately admirable young woman with a delightful voice.

Lyra has a bit of a problem with authority (and vice versa), but she's fundamentally a good person, chaotic good though it may be. She wants to help people, not harm them; she just doesn't see how following the rules is relevant to that exactly. She's a natural, intuitive "wormer" (as hackers of the quantum computer net are called), and nobody is going to stop her worming.

There's a strong conflict built into the setting, which is good use of worldbuilding. Ships can warp through space between stars, but doing so involves a time dilation effect, so that even though it takes a short subjective time for the passengers, many years pass in the wider universe during their transit. This means that if someone leaves for another planet, particularly someone young, to their friends they might as well be dead; when they're next heard from it will be decades later, and they'll still be a teenager while their friends are middle-aged. Lyra's brother has left in just such a way after turning 18, and is gone from the family's life; Lyra, who's not yet quite of age, has to accompany her archaeologist parents when they move planets (again) to investigate another find of ancient terracotta warriors, apparently transported there from China by aliens. The aliens, for reasons not yet understood, did this a lot. (So much so that I did wonder how that amount of clay went missing from China without leaving enduring evidence or historical accounts. If the clay wasn't from Earth, that wouldn't be hard to detect scientifically.)

Leaving aside such minor niggles, this is something different from the common space opera fare, which is what I'd expect from this author; she doesn't just write to the usual bland default template, but puts some thought into the setting and how it interacts with the story and characters. Setting detail isn't just background, it's central to the plot. A good many hard-SF authors could take a lesson.

It's not without its cliches. The moment I read that the young man Lyra hates had blue-green eyes, I muttered, "Houston, we have a love interest." Why do all important characters in YA have to have green, violet, or at best grey eyes? Where's the love for brown eyes? Brown eyes are great, and most humans have them. Maybe that's the point; YA characters have to be special. And Lyra is, though she isn't over-the-top special; at one point she notes that she isn't suddenly going to be a crack shot with a weapon she's never used before, which won the author points from me.

It may have the occasional cliche, but it's not the usual assemblage of tired tropes laid end-to-end on a well-worn pattern, which for me made it much more enjoyable than the many books that don't attempt any more than mediocre sameness. I would happily read more in the series; although there's no cliffhanger, there are plenty of open threads left at the end, and I found this first book entertaining.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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