You all might remember how I raved about the Linesman series of books two years ago (OMG, HAS IT REALLY BEEN THAT LONG ALREADY?). That series from sister act S.K. Dunstall literally reinvigorated my flagging love of space opera, no word of a lie. Go read my reviews for more on that.
Stars Uncharted is a new offering in a new universe, and it too is brilliant in so many ways. Far more ensemble in its casting, Dunstall in this case follows two main protagonists: Nika Rik Terri is a skilled body modder (one of the best of the best) who suddenly has to go on the run from some bad dudes; Josune Arriola is living under an assumed identity after the exploration ship she has lived on for years is destroyed. Their stories intersect quickly and forcefully as they and their newfound allies try to escape from a corporation that needs to silence them, quickly, for the information they couldn’t help but find.
Lots of really cool worldbuilding happening here. As with their previous series, Dunstall has a knack for giving us just enough exposition to help without bogging us down. This is a galaxy run by corporations rather than governments. Nullspace (like hyperspace, I guess) is the main way of jumping around systems, but it’s a touchy technology that requires calibration. Modding one’s body is commonplace enough, if one can afford it, but it too has elements of art in addition to science. And resources remain king: the main plot McGuffin is about finding the location of “Goberling’s lode”, a source of transuranic elements.
Dunstall knows how to open a book with a bang. They waste little time setting anything up. In the case of both viewpoint characters, things go wrong pretty quickly, and from that point out, they have little opportunity to rest or regroup. This works well for almost the entire book. Plans and allegiances shift frequently. I admire that Dunstall isn’t afraid to set something up only for it to go awry, turn pear-shaped, and turn out entirely differently. Less confident or less experienced authors will often create a much more linear plot. Instead, Dunstall is happy to make us think the characters will zig one way, until a new wrinkle gets introduced and they zag instead.
I say this works well for “almost” the entire book because—here’s where you have to lean close while I whisper my dirty fan-boy secret opinion—I’m not a huge fan of this ending. Specifically, at some point around chapter 30 or so, the pacing just went bananas. Too many things began happening at once, too many characters cycling around, people being captured and then being released and then … yeah. Just a lot to keep track of, at least for me, and the book overall felt like it had lost some of the focus it had in the earlier parts of the story. Moreover, I had long ago figured out the twist around Roystan’s identity, and I was just kind of impatient for Nika to figure it out and then reveal it to the others.
Similarly, other elements of Stars Uncharted felt somewhat repetitive or could have been tweaked, in my opinion. The dramatic irony of Snow not knowing Nika’s true identity (it is so obvious, dude), while he keeps mentioning her name, gets old fast. Same with the constant warnings that Josune or Roystan or whoever needs to get into a modding tank ASAP, only for this to get drawn out far longer than it probably should be. At some point, I just found myself wishing for the end … and that’s never something I like in a novel.
Keep in mind, too, that I started this book with high expectations and overall it met them from page one. I curled up on my couch under a blanket on a Saturday night and read the entire first half of Stars Uncharted then and there in one sitting, because I was excited and, more importantly, it was good. It was like a drug, which is my favourite experience when reading a book.
Also, don’t think that just because the ending let me down somewhat, I didn’t enjoy the book overall. I loved most of the characters and their relationships. In particular, I think Nika was my favourite. I liked how she had to set aside a lot of her comforts and her habits in order to make do with this new, imperfect life she was living on the run. Perhaps some of my frustration with the pacing at the end is that, for the reasons of plot and conflict, we never had enough time for these characters to breathe and expand as much as I would like. I think I wanted a bit more “calm before the storm” than Dunstall ever manages to provide … it reminds me of Serenity, which, while an incredible science-fiction movie when viewed as a standalone, is a disappointing Firefly story, if that makes any sense (but that’s a whole other essay).
In the end, Stars Uncharted doesn’t do it for me the way Linesman and its sequels did. There isn’t that same mystery that the alien ship in the Linesman series offers us. The resolution isn’t as good for me. But this is all kind of like saying that the chocolate ice cream isn’t as satisfying as the locally-made chocolate caramel gelato I have in my freezer. It’s still chocolate ice cream, after all.