Welcome to part two of my two-part review of this duology from Marie Lu. I’m glad I went with my gut and read both books in close succession. Had I waited, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed Steelstriker as much as I did—and as you read this review, you will see that I still liked it less than Skyhunter. My chief critique from that review is repeated here: this series is fine, and that’s about it. There is precious little happening here in terms of storytelling risks or fantastic characterization. So while the writing is competent and even entertaining, it still leaves me fairly cold.
Spoilers for Skyhunter but not this book.
This book picks up about six months after the fall of Mara. Talin has been transformed into a skyhunter, much like Red, except she has actually been bonded telepathically with Premier Constantine. He can hear her thoughts, feel her emotions—so Talin does her best not to reach out through her bond with Red to see where he and the last few Maran striker rebels are hiding. Meanwhile, Talin must protect Constantine on pain of her mother’s life being forfeit. But she chafes under this yoke and does her best to undermine him at every turn. The only question is: will it be enough?
It’s a good premise. The threats are real. I like how Lu explores the unsettled nature of conquered nations, how rebellion is always a real threat and the Federation is not quite as seamless and assimilated as it might appear. Similarly, the way Talin meets the rebels—and who they are—makes a lot of sense to me. All in all, the plot is solid and works.
In fact, before I get into my critique, let me give a big round of applause for the ending. I really like most of Lu’s choices, from Talin’s ultimate fate to the way they handle Constantine. I was a little critical of how the first book ended on close to a cliffhanger, but this is a notable example of a duology that truly lives up to that title—again, I made the right decision to borrow them both from the library and read them close together.
I also like how Lu portrays Talin’s struggle with being forced into being a collaborator. I think the book walks a fine line, trying to keep Talin likable as a protagonist while still showing the horror of her being coerced into doing Constantine’s bloody bidding.
So why the lower rating? A couple of issues.
The book alternates between Talin and Red’s perspectives this time. That in and of itself is not bad. But it feels like there is a lot of back-and-forth. The romance between the two of them gets hot and heavy, especially towards the end as the plot ramps up and they have to fight for their lives. But the nature of the plot also means we never actually get to see them talk about anything outside of the immediate threat/rebellion. They don’t spend time together just getting to know one another, bonding, joking, etc. This was present in Skyhunter and was one of the more pleasant elements of the book. This book, being bleaker in its circumstances, lacks that. Lu tries to make up for it with some good bonding between Red and Adena and Jeran, but it isn’t the same.
The rebellion leaders who find Talin are also somewhat two-dimensional. I say two rather than one because there is some depth and nuance happening. But it reminds me a lot of The Hunger Games, which I guess would be a good thing for some readers. These characters feel very cookiecutter, with not a lot going on beyond their purpose for the plot.
Finally, the whole subplot involving what is supposed to be nuclear reactors/weapons is … confused. At one point, it seems like a reactor is detonated in the capital, and everyone outside of the immediate blast radius is fine even after, chapters earlier, it was established that yes, radiation damage is a thing. It’s clever and all for Lu to have her bad guy dig up atomic technology from the Early Ones, and for the most part, I like how she goes about describing it; it reminds me of the difficulty we are having figuring out how to warn far-future generations of the dangers of our nuclear waste disposal sites. But when your character is close enough to see the Cherenkov radiation before blowing up the reactor … is that survivable? I don’t think so.
I guess what I’m saying is that Steelstriker lacks a certain level of complexity that I was hoping for given the world and plot Lu has constructed here. Again, I don’t want to be too harsh on it, because as a novel it works, and it actually delivers the one-two punch that a good duology should. For me, personally, however, I wish it could have done a lot more.