Starsight by Brandon Sanderson – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu!

Skyward was an explosive whirlwind of action, quick dialogue and quirky characters that went immensely deep by the time I reached its closing chapter. Little surprise here, as this is Brandon Sanderson we’re talking about. Starsight, meanwhile, is a different beast altogether, delving into the complexities of the galaxy outside of the human settlement/prison that is Detritus.

Spensa is a warrior – if you’ve read Skyward, you know this to be true. Hell, you’d know it to be a severe understatement, since the scudding girl has grown up listening to the finest tales of heroes Old Earth folklore has to offer and wishing to be every single one of them. Beowulf? Sure! Conan the Barbarian? You guessed it! Over the four hundred and fifty pages of this novel, however, Spensa is forced to play a deadly game she does not excel at, constrained into the role of spy when she gets an opportunity that’s impossible to pass by. Leaving her home behind in the guise of a humanoid alien (holograms are so cool!), Spensa has one task – to steal the Superiority’s secret method of hyperdrive transportation.

Most of the action takes place on a space station by the eponymous name of Starsight, which is also the seat of the Superiority. This dread empire intent on humanity’s destruction turns out to be much, much different from what Spensa imagined. This galactic society is so dissimilar to the humanity of Detritus; the most striking moment that illuminated the gap between these aliens and the humans was Spensa’s reaction at the notion of graphic designers, a profession unimaginable to someone who has spent most of her life struggling for survival.

But what is this novel, at its heart?

Starsight is an exploration of the other, and a way to reconcile with it. It is a story of fear, of facing that fear and growing stronger for the staring down of it. It is a tale of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. And it is beautiful.

On the exploration of the other, I have already said something. But let me dig a little deeper: the two sides of this other are signified by two of the Superiority’s high-ranking officer, Winzik and Cuna. A dione, Cuna is tall and wanky and inhuman, with a predatory smile that puts Spensa on edge. It’s by her invitation that the non-Superiority humanoid pilot, Alanik, is invited. “Alanik” continually questions her motives for the invitation, suspecting Cuna of seeking to use her as a spy for her own political advantage. Winzik, meanwhile, is one of the Krell, as the humans of Detritus call them, a crab-like bureaucratic creature in charge of the Defense ministry. It is his push for creating a pilot force of “lesser, non-prime intelligence aliens” that is the reason behind Spensa’s opportunity to infiltrate the Superiority.

What of fear? The closing of Skyward revealed *Skyward Ending Spoilers until the end of the paragraph* Spensa’s cytonic  and I’ll admit, it got my brows lifted in my trademark look of suspicion. Cytonics sounds positively chthonic and that, even though it means relating to inhibiting the underworld, also puts me in mind of Chthulhu nonsense! I thought with this level of exactness… and the early description of the delvers, the other-dimensional threat that casts a long shadow over much of this novel did indeed tap into that same well-spring of horror of the unknown. It’s the terror of scale, the idea that these otherworldly creatures live beyond the confines of our space and time, too great to even comprehend: “The black mass shifted toward the planet. Were those arms I picked out in the shadows? No, could they be spines? The shape seemed intentionally designed to frustrate the mind, as I tried—against reason—to make sense of what I was seeing. Soon, the blackness simply became absolute.” (39) This is but one of the quotes which plays on this fear…but in typical Sanderson fashion, both my original impressions and those of Spensa’s get twisted around in ways neither of us could’ve dreamed of by novel’s end.

I couldn’t possibly wrap this review up without talking about the new friends Spensa makes along the way. While I regret not having more of Kimmalyn, Jorgen, Cobb and the rest of our merry band of human pilots struggling for humanity’s survival present for a sizable chunk of the book, plenty of new characters make up for this. My absolute favourite new addition to the cast has to be Hesho, a tiny sentient fox monarch, the former monarch of a sizable chunk of his home planet. This member of the kitsen, as his species is called, reminds me of Spensa the way she started off – hungry for glory and heroics and not wholly conscious of the ridiculous level of cheesiness she occasionally exhibited. Some of the funniest pieces of dialogue come from Hesho’s lips: “’Ah, the indignities you must suffer when your people are a true democracy and not a shadow dictatorship ruled by an ancestral line of kings. Right?’ The other kitsen flying past raised a cheer for democracy.” (208) As you might imagine, Hesho is quite a bit removed from your average kitsen, much as he likes to claim otherwise.

He’s far from the only one. Notable characters include Morriumur, the only dione aggressive enough (in the entirety of the species) to try out for fighter piloting. There’s also Vapor, who is a fragment, a species that’s, well, vapor-like. They lack tangible bodies, instead consisting of…I don’t know exactly, some form of gas which, when they are in a resting state, has the smell of cinnamon. Invisible and able to take over electronics, Vapor makes for one of the most interesting characters introduced in Skyward’s world yet. I’m looking forward to learning more about her species.

The prose is, in the usual Sanderson fashion, perfection. It allows the reader to lose themselves fully in this world, while also opening up questions, challenging the reader’s pre-conceptions and delivering clever twists, some of which I saw coming; most of which I didn’t. The very best of escapism, in one neat package, and as you’ve no doubt seen, with a glorious Gollancz cover to grab the attention of  My Skyward cover was the US edition – which is a nice cover, don’t get me wrong, but so generic next to the Gollancz one. I now feel the desperate need to get the UK edition of Skyward as well, just so I can have both covers next to one another – that’s how good the artwork is.

This one is an ace, a 5/5 on Goodreads, a Masterwork, a 10/10! Not a dull moment to be had, not a single of the annoying elements that so often seep into books that are marketed as YA. Bravo, Brandon, you did it again, you madman.

5 thoughts on “Starsight by Brandon Sanderson – Book Review

Add yours

  1. I’ve heard nothing but good things about him and then I have an avif fantasy reading friend that says he treats readers like 12 year olds and explains things over and over again or talks down to them.

    I’m finding he is in the minority. Very thoughtful review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t disagree more. Sure, it’s far from fantasy like Erikson’s Malaazan, which thrusts you into the world and lets you drown or swim by your own merits…but Sanderson is a remarkably wise storyteller. His work can have downright profound effects, especially his best.

      Like

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