Liz Bourke Reviews Gravity of a Distant Sun by R.E. Stearns

Gravity of a Distant Sun, R.E. Stearns (Saga 978-1481476935, $16.99, 432pp, tp) February 2020.

R.E. Stearns’ Gravity of a Distant Sun is the third volume in the trilogy that began with Barbary Station and continued in Mutiny at Vesta. I thoroughly enjoyed both previous in­stalments (two women in a committed relationship do crime in order to stay together in the capitalist hellscape of the future! Space! Piracy! Engineer­ing! Murderous self-aware AIs! Betrayal! Politics! And yes, many exclamation marks to indicate my enthusiasm for all these things together…) so it isn’t really shocking that I’ve been looking forward to Gravity of a Distant Sun. And it’s not surprising that I enjoyed it, either: Gravity of a Distant Sun might be the best novel in the trilogy. For me, it certainly proved the most satisfying.

Don’t start here, though: it benefits from famil­iarity with the events of the preceding two books. It might not, in fact, make much sense without that familiarity.

Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir (and Adda’s little brother Pel) have escaped from Vesta, where a combination of factors (self-aware AIs and the powerful pirate Captain Sloane) had caused them no small amount of trouble. Adda needs medical treatment, because the AIs have seriously screwed with her head, and both Adda and Iridian are being hunted by the authorities – and the AIs, who want Adda to do something for them. But with Adda in hospital and out of commission, it’s impossible for Iridian to keep either of them out of the hands of the authorities. Iridian’s arrested and imprisoned, while Adda’s medical treatment continues in a secure facility. In order to reunite – and to achieve both relative safety and a life together – Iridian needs to succeed in a prison break and Adda has to heal enough to escape from the future’s equivalent of a secure psychiatric treatment facility. Adda will have to take the risk of reaching out to a self-aware AI – and Iridian, who has often relied on Adda to work out plans and contingency plans, will have to make plans that work and adapt on the fly.

Gravity of a Distant Sun is tense and well-paced, with plenty of action and some unexpected revelations. For the first time, Iridian and Adda spend a significant portion of the novel geographi­cally separated and not knowing when – or indeed if – they’ll be able to reunite, and this gives the tension in the first part of the novel more of a personal, urgent edge than was the case early on in the preceding volumes. Once reunited, there are capers, desperate confrontations, and the resolu­tion of some long-running questions. Stearns handles the action well.

One of the things I find most appealing about this book – and have found most appealing about its predecessors – aside from its world and char­acterization, is that its protagonists are in a long-term committed relationship. Romance, and its trials and tribulations, is a frequent component of science fiction and fantasy novels. Less often do we see a central mature relationship, where the participants are faced with trials and challenges both as individuals and as a (usually) pair, but where the relationship itself is never in doubt, where the people in it are committed to growing and changing with each other. Adda and Iridian’s relationship is as much a character as is either of them, separately. This is a different emphasis, and it’s compelling.

I really enjoyed Gravity of a Different Sun. Stearns pulls off a very satisfying conclusion, and though there’s space for more stories about these characters in this world, this is a good place for the story that began in Barbary Station to end.

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 February 2020 issue of Locus.

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