Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, by Christopher Paolini
As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting as many reviews as I used to in my prime. Part of this is due to the expected apocalyptic pandemic malaise, and also part of it has been the fact that I’ve been trying to get through To Sleep in a Sea of Stars for literal months now. The book is 900 (!) pages long, and the audiobook (which is how I’ve been taking it in) is over 30 hours in length. And that’s not counting the extra two hours of appendixes, which I didn’t even listen to. Ooof.
Christopher Paolini is an author I have … mixed opinions about. Mostly because his debut, Eragon, is one of those books I can point to and say “I can do better than that!” Which, well, it may be a bit unfair to compare my own work to something Paolini wrote when he was a kid … but at the same time Eragon is pretty thoroughly terrible. I even tried reading some of the sequels, way back when, but bailed about halfway through the third one.
But! The last of Paolini’s fantasy novels was released in 2011– and now, with To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, he decided to play around with science-fiction. And so, I got curious– after all ths time, and with the opportunity to mess around in another genre, had Paolini matured as a writer?
Turns out, yes. Go figure.
The first thing that struck me about To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is that it comes off as more an adult book. Not in a swearing and sex scenes sort of way (even though the book has both of those), but rather, the book comes from an older perspective. Instead of being about Generic Fantasy Destiny Boy™, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars centers on Kira Navarez, a xenobiologist, off surveying some alien colony world. Right off the bat, Kira has a grown-up relationship, and grown-up problems (namely, balancing a long distance relationship with having to travel across the galaxy due to work). It’s honestly kind of refreshing to see this kind of stuff from Paolini– or even in a space opera book in general. The more grounded themes make the characters a bit more approachable, I guess?
At least, until the plot gets going.
So. Eragon steals from is inspired by Star Wars. In contrast, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars draws from … pretty much everything that isn’t Star Wars. Just off the top of my head, I spotted references to Alien, the Culture, Halo, Firefly, Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who” series, Lovecraft, Mass Effect (Though that last one might just be ‘cause Jennifer Hale reads the audiobook, more on her later), and probably a bunch of other stuff I’m missing. Heck, Kira shares the same name as one of the core characters of Deep Space 9– which is the best Star Trek, but I digress. Honestly, though, I didn’t mind the smorgasbord of other plot elements. If you just crib notes from one work, you’re a hack– but if you crib from a bunch of them, that just means you’re well-versed in the genre! Or something.
Really, though, one of the biggest things To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is inspired by is … Marvel Comics. Or, specifically, the Venom symbiote suit from Marvel Comics. Or maybe Jamie Reyes’ Blue Beetle suit from DC comics. Or maybe the Guyver Suit from, er, Guyver, if Paolini is into 90’s anime. As, y’see, while off xenobiologist-ing, Kira finds herself bonded to an alien symbiote suit, which kicks off the plot. Soon, more aliens come chasing after Kira, trying to take the symbiote from her, and soon Kira is at the center of an intergalactic war.
And it’s … okay?
So, while To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is better than Eragon, that’s a something of a low bar. As once the book kicks off, things feel … really video-gamey. Like, there’s even the ‘find a pistol in a cutscene while the aliens attack your spaceship’ bit, which had me rolling my eyes. There are plenty of greebly monsters for Kira to run away from– and then, later, to blow up in various creative ways.
The funny thing is, while To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is full of action scenes and chases and explosions, it’s also … really weirdly paced. See, Paolini is really proud of all the homework he did making up the FTL system (two hours of appendixes, remember). And, part of it is that FTL travel takes months at a time, requiring crews to go into cryo-sleep. Except Kira’s symbiote prevents her from using a stasis chamber, so there are looooong stretches of the book where Kira is just sitting by herself, in a spaceship, just being retrospective and/or having vaguely prophetic dreams. On the one hand, I can see the opportunity for character introspection– on the other, well, the book is just too damn long, and the winding-down to make FTL jumps just throws off the pacing.
Speaking of pacing, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is way too repetitive. Like there are two multi-chapter sequences that boil down to “Kira is captured by vaguely fascist military guys, imprisoned alone for study, but then breaks free when greebly aliens attack.” Between those two bits, there’s a multi-chapter ‘chase the magic macguffin’ sub-plot that literally contributes nothing to the plot. For a book around 200k words long, at least a quarter of it could probably be cut without losing too much, and that’s not even counting the “Look what I made up!” appendixes.
Just as the pacing is kind of stop-and-start, the tone of the book is really swingy, too. It’s mostly big sprawling space opera, which is … fine, but it goes into some weird places as well. Like, there are multiple, lengthy segments dealing with isolation, torture, and body-horror … in the same book where Kira’s ragtag smuggler crew buddies (not ripped off from Firefly, honest) have a pet pig named Runcible, and make terrible puns about newts. It’s a … choice. Oh, and while we’re getting into the weird stuff, there’s a sex scene later in the novel that’s not … super explicit, but it’s just enough to make one wonder about Paolini’s browser search history. Oof.
Really, the one thing that inspired me to finish To Sleep in a Sea of Stars was the fact that I was listening to the audiobook, as read by Jennifer Hale, a.k.a. Commander freakin’ Shepard. It’s a brilliant bit of casting that makes me wonder why nobody’s hired her to read more audiobooks. Unless Hale has read more audiobooks, in which case somebody tell me what they are so I can listen to them.
A voice actress by trade, Hale puts her talents to good use in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, as she gives each character their own unique accent and way of speaking. Some of the accents verge on hammy, but at the same time at least it’s easy to tell who’s talking at any given time in the audiobook.
So yeah. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a perfectly serviceable (if overlong and oddly paced) space opera. It’s kind of weird, though, when you think about it. As on the one hand, it’s definitely an improvement over his earlier work. On the other … well, for something that’s been nearly 10 years in the making, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars isn’t doing anything new or mind-blowing for the sci-fi genre. It leaves plenty of dangling plot threads (some intentional, some not as much) for a sequel, and I may get around to reading the sequel when it comes out– I just wonder if it’ll take Paolini another 10 years to get it written.