Liz Bourke Reviews The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt
The Wrong Stars, Tim Pratt (Angry Robot 978-0857667090, $7.99, 400pp, pb) November 2017. Cover by Paul Scott Canavan.
Bloody hell, but The Wrong Stars is an amazingly good, extremely fun, very satisfying novel. It’s not like Tim Pratt doesn’t have form for fun: as T.A. Pratt, his (sadly underrated) Marla Mason novels packed an ass-kicking amount of fun, and punch, into a short and weird urban fantasy space. But The Wrong Stars is more fun, and more precisely calibrated fun exactly to my tastes, than even Pratt’s track record would have led me to expect.
The Wrong Stars is space opera. It opens with Callie, captain of the White Raven, discovering a ship that looks like a derelict. Callie’s a bounty hunter, a salvager, and sometimes a law enforcement officer on a contract basis for one of the major powers in the outer reaches of the solar system. It’s only logical, then, that she and her crew board the dead-looking ship to see what they may find.
The derelict is a goldilocks ship – over five hundred years old, one of the ships that were designed to carry a handful of passengers in cryosleep to find new worlds and build a society from seedbanks, when it was thought that Earth didn’t have much longer to go to support human life. (In the intervening years, things on Earth got better. Humanity met a strange race of aliens that humans call “Liars” because they tell wildly varying and nonsensical stories about everything, and never give a straight answer. Now humans are settled in several different star systems, thanks to the Liars, and have a near-instantaneous way to travel to those specific systems – again thanks to the Liars.) But it’s not nearly as derelict as Callie initially assumed. The ship shows evidence of having – impossibly – travelled vast distances very recently. And its cryochamber still houses one member of the crew, who was recently woken up and then put back into hibernation for the journey back.
That crewmember is Dr. Elena Oh. Woken by Callie’s crew, she’s initially as bewildered as they are as to how her ship ended up where it did, and why the rest of the cryopods that should have contained her colleagues are empty. She’s a woman out of time, and her initial encounter with this new, future solar system leaves her off-kilter and uncertain: she has temporary amnesia around her un- and re-freezing – and Callie, and her crew, are quite enough for any woman to adjust to, between the AI known as Shall, the very modified engineer Ashok, Stephen – ship’s doctor, executive officer, and member of a religious sect with strict holy days and a requirement to commune in company while using mind-altering substances – and Drake and Janice, whose encounter with Liars once saved their lives but left them permanently changed.
When Ashok discovers a device on board Elena’s ship that could permit ships to travel vast distances without reliance on the current Liar FTL technology, Callie knows she and her crew – and Elena – are going to be rich from salvage rights. When Elena’s amnesia clears, she remembers what happened to her ship and her crew – an alien structure seizing their ship, aliens completely unlike the Liars as described to her, mechanical insectoid things taking over her fellow crewmembers’ brains, and her skin-of-the-teeth escape. She makes a deal with Callie and the crew of the White Raven: help Elena find and rescue her people, or at least make a good faith effort, and the White Raven can have the miraculous FTL-in-a-box device free and clear.
That’s when things start to go explosively wrong. A Liar ship blows up a major space station in Trans-Neptunian space, narrowly missing the White Raven. They want to destroy all evidence of what Elena and her ship uncovered. That includes killing everyone who might possibly have learned of it, just to be sure. With a captive boarder on their hands, a Liar who – astoundingly – claims to be telling the truth, Callie, Elena, et al. learn that the Liars were once a servant race of terrible, incomprehensible monster-masters. And the Liars are terrified those disappeared masters might return, or the sleeping technology they left behind might wake, with all the destructive power of those vanished masters. The Liars have been carefully keeping humans away from anything too dangerous for decades, not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because, thanks to the goldilocks ships, they don’t know if they can exterminate all of humanity and keep themselves safe that way.
The facility that Elena’s ship encountered belonged to those masters, though – and there are still humans there. With the very reluctant aid of the truth-telling Liar – called Lantern – Callie, Elena, and the White Raven make a plan to rescue Elena’s shipmates, but will circumstances let them all survive it? Not to mention the complications that come next….
The Wrong Stars is vital, visceral, energetic pulp. The characters are enormously engaging, especially Callie and Elena, whose slow-build romance and mutual uncertainty over does she like me? and developing friendship are, by me, the emotional heart of the book. Important, too, is Shall the AI and his complicated emotional history with Callie. (I’m very fond of AIs with really human problems.) There’s so much entertaining banter, and Pratt keeps the pacing dialled up to eleven – tight, tense, and really fun. At times the exposition can feel a little too direct, but that’s a very minor issue in a novel this entertaining.
The Wrong Stars reminded me strongly of television’s Killjoys. It has a similar emotional tone and approach to bantering dialogue, a similar inclusive approach to storytelling, and a similarly breakneck style of action-mystery-plotting. I can’t remember the last time I read science fiction quite like it: Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has a similar found-family feel without the breakneck pace, and Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion has a breakneck plot without the banter and recognisably sensible approach to relationships – but no, neither has the same overall sheer pulpish enthusiasm and joy. The Wrong Stars stands out, and right now, for me, stands alone.
I’m really looking forward to books two and three, because The Wrong Stars is only the opening volley in a series. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the November 2017 issue of Locus.