It is with no small amount of regret that I announce I have never been mistaken for a fearsome space pirate. On the other hand, that’s probably for the best. I’m not going to be sent to space army school like Ia Cōcha in Ignite the Stars. The result is an intense story from Maura Milan about divided loyalties and the necessity of questioning authority in the face of injustice.
Ia is seventeen years old but is already infamous in the Olympus Commonwealth as a criminal, a rogue, a pirate—and a killer. Ia sees herself as a bit of a freedom fighter, thumbing the nose of the Commonwealth and standing up for the little people on the liminal spaces of the Commonwealth’s Fringe. When the Commonwealth finally captures Ia, they force her to attend their space force training academy, as a symbol of their strength: look, our worst enemy turns out to be a teenager we’re press-ganging into service! Meanwhile, the Commonwealth enjoys fostering resentment of refugees, particularly the Tawnies. Brinn is a Tawny (but she doesn’t like showing it) who has just started her first year at the academy. Guess who her roommate is….
Stellar worldbuilding (pun intended) from Milan here. With a dearth of exposition (albeit a reliance on typical tropes, like an evil federation/empire, etc.) she nevertheless unfolds an entire universe for us. It doesn’t take long to inhabit the Olympus Commonwealth and its political intrigue, even as we end up at a type of space Hogwarts complete with well-intentioned but mathematically befuddled space Dumbledore. Combine this with the odd couple pairing of rule-breaking Ia and rule-obsessed Brinn, and we have ourselves a recipe for a pretty good story.
The friendships in this book are, for me, the best parts. Brinn and Ia’s comes to dominate, of course, and it’s fun watching it develop. When Brinn first meets Ia, she is understandably intimidated to the point of locking herself in their room’s bathroom for the first several nights. Eventually, the two come to an understanding—thanks to some blackmail—but it takes a long time for a hint of true friendship to develop. I appreciate that Milan doesn’t rush this, that for a while it seems like Ia is truly intent only on escape, no matter the price.
Honourable mention, though, to Brinn and Angie’s relationship. When Milan first introduces Angie, I uncharitably assumed she was a stock antagonist—and a petty, unimportant one at that. Boy was I wrong! Angie’s character acquires more depth as the story continues, reminding us that, although it’s probably rarer than we’d like, people do change, grow, and learn. The way Brinn and Angie’s detente evolves into friendship is really nice to see.
I haven’t mentioned Knives at all yet, and that’s on purpose. Honestly, I don’t mind Knives himself as a character. I get he has daddy issues. But I hate the implicit romantic tension between Knives and Ia—ugh, just so predictable; it does nothing for me. If it gets you going, great; you are welcome to it!
Knives is just a specific case of a broader issue with Ignite the Stars, in my opinion: the characterization is uneven and sometimes quite unoriginal. Brilliant young flight instructor whose daddy is a top-ranking general, and they don’t see eye-to-eye? Yawn. Bigotry against a particular ethnicity while at a military academy? Also seen that. And, on a related note, I could have done with a bit more exposition when it comes to the Tawnies. They seem to be a sub-species, offshoot, or genetic variant of humanity? Because their differences aren’t just cosmetic, since they have enhanced cognitive capabilities.
Huge kudos to Milan, though, for the reveal regarding the Tawnies and how the Big Bad was using them towards the end there … no spoilers, but I was literally thinking that such a thing made the most logical sense, in this universe, given what they were trying to accomplish. So I’m really happy that Milan agreed with me on that point and lifted the curtain enough to give us a glimpse of that.
Other points of confusion: how do ships get around? We hear a lot of talk of “gates”, which I assume are wormhole/hyperspace contraptions, but it’s never clear to me if these gates exist only in-atmosphere or if some are spaceborne. There’s a lot of references to “planes”, which implies sub-orbital capability only to me, so I’m not sure if this universe actually has any true spaceships—or are “planes” capable of both atmospheric and spaceflight? Questions, questions….
I think I’m a little disappointed because I just really wanted there to be more to this story. Ia herself is an interesting protagonist. But we know so little about her backstory, beyond the general idea that she’s a crusader for justice against the big bad evil space empire. The same goes for the other characters. Milan assembles these tropes into a serviceable narrative, and I like the theme, and I certainly enjoyed reading the book and gobbling up the action scenes … but nothing jumped out at me that felt particularly fresh. I like my stories to surprise me once in a while, and so while Ignite the Stars has a lot of fuel, it never really caught fire for me.