When Christopher Paolini announced that he was working on his next book and that it is going to be in space, I was really excited, being a big fan of the Inheritance cycle. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (TSiaSoS) was going to be an adventure through space by one of my favorite fantasy authors.
However, after the book launch, due to some unfortunate circumstances and me being occupied by 1984, I only started reading this book in late October 2020. It seemed that I was not in the zone for a Sci-Fi novel and it was a very slow start for me. But over the course of the following months, the world of Paolini pulled me in. I got familiar with the characters and I was lost in a Sea of Stars (pun intended).
I have many thoughts on this novel and have tried my best to group them together into some form of sense. So here goes...
Kira and her team are on Adrasteia and when on a final mission to check on a missing drone, she finds an alien relic in an underground cave-like structure. She and the pilot, who is pulls her out, get infected by an alien parasite. Not showing up in early scans in Kira, the parasite triggers due to her state of mind to lash out and killing a few of her team members, including her fiancé. The piece that infected the pilot also gets joined back with Kira.
The plot starts out slow with the departure preparation from Adrasteia, but the discovery of the Soft Blade launches things into motion. Soon, unidentified alien species attack the ship Extenuating Circumstances, and by luck, Kira is rescued by the Wallfish from the destroyed ship. (Later, we learn that the aliens were a new species called Jellies and that a piece of the suit that got separated from Kira in her fight and escape from the Jellies actually led to the creation of a being called the Maw).
This lays down the start of a journey that propels Kira across the galaxy as she tries to understand the relic that has latched onto her and how to handle the threat of alien invasion. The novel does start out strong, with a lot of suspense on how things are going to be handled. The destination is not clear and Kira needs to find the path on how to move forward. One issue I had with the story was that at multiple points, the next step is not clear, until conveniently something happens at the right time.
A cohesive story is one where there is usually a destination and the plot slowly moves towards it. The destination may not be clear in the start, and can be slowly revealed as the plot progresses. Good stories have hints lying early in the novel as to the place it is going to end in, at least a general direction. This is lacking greatly in TSiaSoS. It is a story of MacGuffins, with not one but one leading to another and then to another until we reach the end.
MacGuffin: an object, device or an event in a film or a book which serves merely as a trigger for the plot.
When Kira is rescued on the Wallfish, she convinces Captain Falconi that they need to get access to a Jelly spaceship because she can understand the language. After getting access to the spaceship, Kira learns about the Staff of Blue and its location. Finding out that the Staff of Blue will help humans win the war, she again convinces the Wallfish crew to join her to visit the alien planet. After the Staff of Blue turns out to have been destroyed, a sect of the Jellies called Knot of Minds offers a proposal to form an alliance with humans.
Jelly spaceship -> Creation of the Maw -> Staff of Blue -> Knot of Minds -> Warn The Knot of Minds -> Attack the Battered Hierophant & Ctein -> The Maw
This pushes to another travel sequence to our solar system to submit the proposal, which is, no surprise, rejected. Then, back to warning the Knot of Minds. After the warning comes the plan to attack the leader of Wranaui, Ctein on the Battered Hierophant. Conveniently, the nightmares and their leader, the Maw attacks after the defeat of Ctein, which leads to the final boss battle with the Maw.
Each MacGuffin pushes to the next and when you try to see the whole picture, all you find is a bunch of quests scrambled together.
The Passage of Time
The passage of time in space is in a different scale than on Earth. Or should I say, to traverse large distances in space, it takes a lot of time, even if you are travelling faster than light (FTL). Paolini makes use of this well by progressing events in the universe that impact the protagonist and her journey.
It takes some getting used to but quite a lot can happen in the universe, when you are traveling, esp. if the travel is as long as 3 months at a time. The 6 parts of the novel have end with travel segments, which further exemplify the repeated cycle of events.
Paolini makes use of this travel time to get Kira trained with new abilities, be it combat with the Soft Blade in the early portions or healing and creation in the later portions. It is an interesting use of the mechanic as events progress in the larger universe, while Kira prepares herself in the ship and gets ready to face the next threat.
The strongest part of the novel are the characters. As you are introduced to the crew of the Wallfish, Captain Falconi, his lieutenant Neilsen, the muscle Sparrow, the mechanic Hwa-Jung, the ship doctor Vishal, the youngest member Trig and the most glorious ship-mind Gregorovitch, I saw them as strangers, not ready for my trust. But over the course of the novel, I grew to understand their motivations and was happy they are part of the journey. In fact, I wished them to join us for each of the quests.
I especially grow attached to the Entropists, Jorrus & Veera, with their mysterious magical science based abilities and their one mind. They were the only ones who volunteered to come on the journey and I feel they are the ones who got dealt the harshest. Even though Trig was injured and in coma most of journey, atleast he was restored to his self by the end.
My most favorite character is obviously, the ship mind Gregorovitch. I mean who wouldn't like him. His constant banter with Kira and his general snarkiness, implying of his vast knowledge always made me look forward to his interactions. When he loses his mind and is imprisoned (technically, cut off from the ships mainframe), it was hard to see it happen. I was really happy when Kira was able to heal him (the only time I was glad about her Seed powers).
Coming to the love arc between Kira & Falconi, I am split on it. On one side, it seems sweet. Love in the Stars. It is nice that Kira found love even after her loss. This does happen over the course of few interactions with multiple travel segments (in-between quest interactions). On the other, it seems unnecessary and cheap. Her fiancé and love of her life had just passed so soon and instead of naturally grieving, she falls for the next guy she sees. It feels forced and like another of the conveniences that Paolini afforded just for the sake of having a love story in his novel.
The Soft Blade/Seed
What starts out as an alien parasite built to be seemingly used as a weapon, by an ancient race called the Vanished, the Soft Blade seems to have a consciousness of its own. Early on, the consequences of having a foreign consciousness overriding your own are explored, but nothing is expanded on that further into the book. The healing and indestructible capabilities are, on the other hand, stressed upon.
The Soft Blade protects Kira during battle forming a hard shell around her, even allowing her to breathe in space. The suit is very reminiscent of the alien xenomorph, however, it seems more benign than malicious. The fractal patterns that it forms create a sort of mystery as you are shown visions of a mysterious fractal being worshipped.
Later, we find out the true purpose of the Soft Blade is creation and that the fractal represents the order it is supposed to served. It is actually a Seed. It has the ability to create anything and that includes life itself. This is how the Maw, corrupted in its purpose, created the nightmares. At first glance, it works but as you think about it more, it fails to stand as naturally as it should have. It feels more like a plot convenience and is further used as a Deus Ex Machina to serve the third act of the novel.
Early on, the Soft Blade splits to infect two members, until the one piece from the pilot merges with Kira's suit. This and the fact that the orphaned piece of the Soft Blade becomes into the Maw are the only times where the Soft Blade has contact with other people. Even though later sections, when Kira uses it as the Seed, that parts of it split away from her, the abilities of the Soft Blade to attach to other humans is never explored. It is also never explained as to why it is not done.
It is surprising that Paolini tied the origin of the Maw with the orphaned piece of the Soft Blade. It is another piece of evidence that he worked very hard to keep everything centered around the protagonist. It seems too much of a coincidence that everything requires Kira to be present or as the source of the plot itself.
It is repeatedly said that the Jellies were just about to attack and Kira's discovery of the suit was just coincidental. Yet it seems too convenient not to be true that the aliens attacked because Kira found the Soft Blade.
The Jellies are a sentient, space-faring race, who attack the humans out of fear of their abilities. Paolini paints a vivid picture of a species evolved from ocean-based creatures. Through extensive use of artificial bodies, adapted themselves to nearly every possible environment. Using the technology of the Old Ones, they have learned to store and transfer a copy of their consciousness, making them essentially immortal.
Further, having a language based on scent is quite interesting to read and as you progress through the journey, the use of the language shows a stark difference between our two races. I will give Paolini a lot of credit for thinking up something as original as this.
However, when it comes to their actions in the plot, their portrayal falls short. The species seem to have progressed technologically, curtesy of the Old Ones' technologies they discovered and harnessed. This gave them the ability to transfer their consciousness between bodies, essentially granting themselves immortality.
But instead of planning an attack on a technologically evolved human race, they just blindly seem to have set their army at war without a sensible plan in place. There does seem to be any strategy to this supposedly intelligent race. Again, you can see the flaw in their actions as another plot device to be used to motivate the main characters.
It seems that the Jellies are no more intelligent than actual jellyfish they are named after. Actually, I would say jellyfish are actually way smarter.
The Old Ones/Vanished
The Old Ones are a race of technologically superior beings whose existence predated humans in the galaxy. However, the entire race disappeared without a trace, and hence they are called the Vanished. They seem to have created the Soft Blade and the Staff of Blue.
The Vanished have an interesting premise, but short of being used as mysterious pre-existence and a plot device wherever demanded, they do not serve much of a purpose. Initially, they seem very reminiscent of the Reapers from the Mass Effect series, but they just turn out to be a dud. Instead of expanding on their myth and power, Paolini chooses to sideline them over the nightmares and Jellies.
There are references of another Maw like creature that almost wiped out the race, but the Staff of Blue was used to bring it to heel. The main reason of their annihilation is never explored, maybe it is being saved for the next book or maybe it was because the Staff of Blue was destroyed, which made theme lose the ability to defend themselves.
The story concludes with Kira using the Seed to build a Space Station to help build relations between the two species, Humans & Wranaui. It seems fair enough that peace is possible only through a middle ground, a United Nations equivalent in space and Kira, being as powerful as she is, is the only one who can make this possible.
After all that has happened so far this is the logical conclusion of peace between two species at war. Instead of a natural alliance and diplomatic talks between the two species, it will require a neutral station to serve as grounds for talks. It seems logical, but too convenient. So, instead of making use of resources from both species to work together and build the trust between each other, we are given another thing that only Kira and the Seed can do.
The Ending - Another MacGuffin
I think that Paolini does not like his protagonists to have a peaceful life in the land they are from after the end of his stories. He has to uproot them and make it so that they will never return back to that land. Maybe it is an old grudge he holds against heroes. Maybe it is his way of writing their death.
When Kira discovers the seven more seeds of nightmares out in the universe, she takes it upon herself to journey out there to destroy them. This time she cannot take the Wallfish crew because the story is over. She has to go out by herself "...to Sleep in a Sea of Stars".
Yet again it seems to be another MacGuffin that the protagonist has to chase after.
When I finished the novel, I was happy overall. It a good story with its flaws. At times, the novel did seem long. It took me some time to properly get into the flow as well. I will Paolini credit for the work he had done on the characters. I did get truly attached to the crew of the Wallfish. The setting of the universe and the political intrigue have a good foundation. But as I dug deeper, reviewing the whole story, the flaws did not seem as small as it was at first glance.
The political climate seemed to be setup only on the surface, just enough to serve the plot. Nothing logical in it. For a species at war with another, it makes no sense for humans to not even entertain a meeting for a possible alliance with the aliens. I believe humans would be smart enough to atleast send decoys merely just for the purpose of gathering information & fooling the enemy.
It looks like Paolini wanted to have everything revolve around the protagonist, instead of actually expanding the universe beyond. Hence, Kira has to be the one at the center of every plot line (see The MacGuffins above).
I can't help but draw parallels to The Expanse series with it's equivalent alien proto molecule and the First Contact. The tension and political intrigue in that series is evident and nicely expanded upon with multiple characters and factions spread across the universe. It seems to be the far superior one, even though both the books have similar plot lines. Just adding the extra layer of additional characters and going beyond the Chosen One narrative, serves to add a certain depth that is missing from TSiaSoS.
I have a feeling I have been a bit harsh on the book, but you can only be stern with those that you love. There is so much potential in the Fractalverse, the physics and the mechanics, and the characters that Paolini has worked hard to build that it is hard to see him waste it away in a weak story, riddled with plot conveniences. I dont regret reading TSiaSoS. It had its moments. I just hope that Christopher sees the flaws and creates an awesome tale next time.