To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
Review by Andrew Chidwick
Ever since the days of Tolkien, maps have been a beloved staple of the fantasy genre. Christopher Paolini’s earlier work, the YA fantasy series The Inheritance Cycle, took place in a scaled down version of Middle Earth, for which he drew the map himself in satisfying detail. However, within the first pages of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars we are not treated to a conventional two dimensional map, but a three dimensional plane where we can see whole planetary systems represented by tiny dots. The map even informs us of the distance (in light years) between each system. Paolini has turned our entire galaxy into his latest fantasy realm, pouring a whole Tolkien’s worth of lore into every facet of it. And in the centre is our Solar System, known as ‘Sol’ in the book, where the bulk of the story does not take place.
In the beginning, we are taken 18.8 light years away from Sol to the star Sigma Draconis. From there we close in on an orbiting gas giant named ‘Zeus’, before zeroing in on our destination of Adrasteia, one of its moons. Here we find our protagonist wrestling with a piece of futuristic scientific equipment, the way we would wrestle with a photocopier. Through this Paolini gives us not just a sense of size, but of scale.
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars follows Kira Navárez, a xenobiologist, in a future where Earth has colonised and terraformed much of the galaxy. So far there has only been one discovery that points to life existing beyond our planet, but on Adrasteia, Kira will come across the second. At first it appears to be an alien artefact, then a strange weapon, and then something so much more as Kira travels between numerous worlds, encounters different ships and their crew, and all the while Paolini takes care to emphasise the scale of these events within our vast universe through the most minute details. This attention to detail carries over to the action set pieces as well, but in this case it is a hindrance and the bigger picture is lost in several scenes that could have focused more on story beats, and less so on the chaotic violence.
We learn the most about Kira in the quietest moments, especially in the ‘exeunt’ at the end of each part, where Kira is often alone travelling at light-speed for months on end. Alone, that is, except for Gregorovich, the ‘ship mind’. I won’t give away exactly what a ship mind is, but he adds a splash of colour to what would otherwise threaten to be a conventional space adventure. One of the best chapters of the book contains a conversation between him and Kira, where the lines between characterisation and atmosphere blur for a chilling effect.
There is a much greater distinction between lore and story, and this threatens the larger ideas at play. Paolini has made it very clear that this is a stand-alone novel, and he instead intends to write more stories set in the same universe, or ‘Fractalverse’, as he calls it. It’s a perfectly valid approach, and it explains why some plot developments are given more weight than others, but it also results in seemingly important elements being dropped completely from the story. This dissonance between story, plot, and lore leads to a grand conclusion made up of two climaxes that thud into each other without much grace. The feeling of scale is still present, unfortunately it does little to compensate the lack of emotional weight in the first climax, thankfully offset by the far more satisfying second. It is here that the most important elements finally come together, and we get the true ending that the story was working towards.
Paolini is a fantasy writer at heart, and his approach is adapted rather than subverted for this science fiction tale. Kira’s discovery of a new form of life has obvious parallels with Eragon, and the quest that she and her friends undertake never strays too far from classic fantasy/adventure fare. There are references from The Dark Crystal to Alien and more, yet Paolini is still able to take us into new territory and Kira’s evolution throughout the story is a joy to read. All the while we are in awe of the vastness of space, and the daunting prospect of navigating it.
Because of Paolini’s fantasy background he has given us a world that is both expansive and comprehensive, and this is the greatest achievement of Paolini’s latest work – a Sea of Stars where we never want to find the edge.