To Sleep (Perchance to Dream) in a Sea of Stars: Review

Kira Navárez dreamed of life on new worlds. Now she’s awakened a nightmare. During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move.

As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human.

While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope… 

My Review of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

After years, the poster child for homeschoolers, success story of self-publishers, and representative of Tolkien-esque fantasy authors, boy wonder Christopher Paolini has returned with another epic tale of an intrepid traveler stumbling upon a creature it doesn’t understand, bonding with it to the extent of symbiosis, and saving the reality in which they live by ultimately destroying a beast of gargantuan proportions.

It all sounds pretty much like classic Paolini, I have to admit. And some things are very familiar about Paolini’s science fiction epic set in space. He has an incredible gift for world building, for one thing. His monsters are very monstrous. His protagonists face suitable struggles and encounter a varied cast of characters. But Paolini isn’t a kid anymore, and I think there’s a maturity about the writing that comes through in this novel that couldn’t be seen consistently in his Inheritance Cycle. That being said, it’s also a little less fun than the Inheritance Cycle, partially due to this newfound gravitas. But it’s a stand-alone novel, so there’s something to be said for the tradeoff.

I have to admit—this book seemed to take forever. I read it over the course of a month and a half, which doesn’t seem that long; I have definitely spent that and much longer getting through some classics. But I wasn’t anticipating this to be quite such a dense read, and dense it was. (Remembering all 800-900 pages of the last two books of the Inheritance Cycle, I shouldn’t have been surprised.) It took a while getting going, and was what I would term episodic in its progression. The sections were consistently broken by bouts of faster than light travel, during which the main character would be unconscious, or sometimes in and out of consciousness. True to the title, there was a lot of sleeping among the stars. For a while, I was counting on every chapter to end with the main character losing consciousness.

I could see the buildup and shorter term goals along the way being treated like episodes in the larger story arc, and I realised this book would translate well into a mini-series. Each waypoint along the journey held its own immediate significance and was treated by the characters as such. There was no point at which I felt there was a guaranteed outcome—there was the projected outcome, but then events or circumstances got subverted, and suddenly the priorities shifted and the characters and their plans had to adapt to the new situation.

I really liked how Paolini did this—it is character and tension building 101—how does the character react to unexpected challenges? How do they innovate? How do they get through it? Basically, I noticed how many sequences contained multiple layers of conflict—it’s not just against the aliens, it’s against each other, it’s against the machinery, etc. Obstacle gets stacked upon obstacle so that it is not a straightforward solution. I recently rewatched the sci-fi series Andromeda and this is something I noticed about how well the writers build tension into particularly the season finale episodes—layering conflict upon obstacle upon conflict upon obstacle. This technique, in whatever type of story, forces the characters to dig deep and plumb the depths of their construction. That’s not to say characters can’t ever get a lucky break, but if those breaks are too often or not treated with sufficient weight, then you end up with a story full of plot conveniences with no tension or reward for overcoming at all. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars definitely could not be accused of plot convenience to cover characters’ shortcomings, which is a good thing.

On the other hand, misfortune after misfortune can also become somewhat unbelievable. If anything, there were tense action sequences in this story that became dragged out and exhausting because new conflicts kept popping up one after another in a quick rotation without giving time for a breath in between. It definitely tested the characters, but then it started testing me as well. When I’m trying to read my chapter or two before bed, I’m not looking to have to read five or six because there is no sense of even small resolution after a military engagement, but now we’ve got to meet the next set of antagonists who jumped out of light speed right before we finished off our last enemies. There was one section about halfway through in particular that seemed to drag on far longer than the story beats should have let it. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right rhythm for it, but in any case, if you’re looking for tension that stretches you literally to the point of breaking with a dissatisfying violin-string twang, then this is the book for you.

So much for the larger critiques of pacing and construction, let’s consider our character’s journey. I have to say, to begin with, I wasn’t too impressed by how it starts. Our protagonist, Kira, is in a loving relationship with a fellow scientist on a mission to scout out a new planet for eventual terraforming and potential colonization. The first chapter reads like a romance novel, albeit not the beginning of a romance novel; Kira and her man, I think his name was Alan, have a sexy rendezvous and get engaged.  And… can anyone else guess where this is going? Yeah, Alan dies. Big spoiler alert there. And if I complained about the fridging of the wife in Red Rising (which I did), I can only say that To Sleep in a Sea of Stars fridges the fiancé.

It is quite tragic and jarring the way it happens, which I will give some points for on the grounds of originality. But was it fulfilling for the character of Alan, or was it just a cheap way to wring more emotional motivation out of Kira going forward? I think it was the latter, and I don’t even think it did a good job of the latter, because Kira seems to get over it very quickly, only thinking about it in passing off and on. Granted, she has bigger problems to worry about that played a part in Alan’s death, but it becomes very clear that the emotional journey of the Kira is secondary to the grander plot Paolini has constructed, which makes me wonder why he threw in the initial love interest at all. The story would have worked essentially the same way without Kira having been in a relationship and engagement with Alan—any one of her coworkers’ deaths could have accomplished the same thing. And it would have been a much quicker immersion into the story, instead of wasting time introducing a character for pages of scenes who is just going to be dead and inconsequential for 98% percent of the book afterward.

In fact, that is a complaint I have—introducing too many characters with too little significance. I understand you have to have cannon fodder and you don’t want to make it too obvious who is going to play that role by not giving any personal or unique information about them. A cast of faceless Red Shirts is not what anyone is asking for, here. I’m not sure what I’m asking for.

The more I think about it, the more I think maybe what Paolini did with the characters was lowkey brilliant. When a tragic event leaves Kira the lone survivor of her crew, I was kind of upset because I had been introduced to that crew in an engaging way and was prepared to spend more time with them.  When Kira joins another crew later, I was hesitant to get attached to the characters introduced because I’d already been disappointed once. In that way, Paolini sort of drew out of me a reflection of what Kira was feeling—her grief left her unwilling to get involved or attached to another group because of what happened to her first crew. I withdraw my criticism on that point.

As far as the new crew goes, I enjoyed their characterization for the most part. There were a few interesting people groups Paolini created, like the Entropists and the New Hutterites, and I really liked the inclusion of the ship minds, as opposed to a simple AI, who were organic brains grown to gargantuan proportions and wired into ships. Of course the slightly unhinged ship mind Gregorovich was a favourite. His Shakespearean monologuing and his trauma related to losing his crew and floating alone in space was very Andromeda-esque, reminding me of the season 1 episode “The Mathematics of Tears.” I would be surprised if Paolini hadn’t watched Andromeda.

Gregovorich: “The impermanence of nature long ago drove me mad as a March hare, or hadn’t you noticed?”

Kira: “I was trying to be polite and not mention it.”

Gregovorich: “Truly, your tact and consideration are without peer.”

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Paolini also knows how to build a good alien, in that they really seem, well, alien. They’re not some humanoid in a gas mask. There are varieties among a single species, and their language is on a completely different wavelength than anything any of the humans have ever encountered—they communicate by giving off scents. Which, somewhat cool if you think about it, unfortunately in transcription is not as cool. I got tired of reading weirdly punctuated conversations that indicated a “near-scent” communication between Kira and the alien, but that’s a minor technical preference on my part. Although, it also reminded of that Doctor Who spoof with Rowan Atkinson with the aliens who communicate by passing gas, so that’s an unfortunate association. Moving along.

The other main kind of aliens, the ones that Kira’s unwanted passenger is associated with, remain rather mysterious, although one appears briefly, awakened unintentionally and known only as some sort of bringer of judgement. These are the ultra-advanced aliens who somehow, despite their advancement, managed to get themselves mostly wiped out in some wars, as per the Time Lords. Kira glimpses sequences of these ancient conflicts given to her by the symbiotic being who bonds with her. There remains much to be learned about them even at the end when Kira’s exploration of their technological and biological capabilities expand to incredible lengths, and I feel as though there is enough left unknown to create fodder for a second book.

Overall, I think this book is an epic, and will probably deserve a place along with the likes of Dune and Ursula K. Le Guin’s works. I can’t say it is my favourite or even that I enjoyed all of it, but I’m glad I stuck with it to read the whole thing, and I can appreciate it for what it is—an exceptional book of its kind. If you’re into smart science fiction with well-built systems, alien cultures, and space battles and don’t mind a slower read, this is a book that will suck you into its artificial (on ships) and alien (on planets) atmospheres and more than likely take your breath away.   

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