Kameron Hurley first came to my attention when God's War was nominated for the 2012 Nebula Award for best novel. I instantly fell in love with that book, and the same goes for the two sequels, Infidel and Rapture. Dark, violent, complex, touching, compelling, populated with flawed but endearing and unforgettable characters, I felt that the Bel Dame Apocrypha could well be the very best science fiction series of the new millennium. And a few years down the line, I still believe this. At the top of her game, I claimed that Kameron Hurley ranked among the best SFF writers out there. I couldn't wait to see what the future had in store for her. I went so far as to say that Hurley had now joined my short list of speculative fiction "must read" authors.
In the subsequent months, something unexpected happened. Kameron Hurley gradually became known more for her blog posts, genre-related articles, or essays, and not necessarily for her novels. Nothing wrong with that, of course. She also became somewhat of a poster girl for the online SJW SFF clique. Which is why, in the end, I was so reticent to read The Mirror Empire, the first installment in The Worldbreaker Saga. Yes, I am aware that I've just said that Hurley was now part of my "must read" authors and I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into whatever she would publish next. Problem is, I didn't get an ARC for that one and the advance praise scared me. You see, all those reviews went on and on about what Kameron Hurley was trying to do. Not much was being said about the story itself. It was nice to learn that she's not just subverting all those fantasy tropes and clichés. She kicked them in the balls, kicked them while they were down, set fire to them, and then pissed all over them. Good for her. But I'm a plot kind of guy. Always have been and always will be. I wanted to know just how good the story was. But all I was reading about had to do with gender role reversal and gender non-conformity, yada yada yada. Kameron Hurley was being applauded for coming up with something totally different. But not, as far as I could tell, for writing an awesome and compelling story. Understandably, The Mirror Empire was an extremely divisive work among readers when it was released. Still is to this day. And although I've bought both the first volume and Empire Ascendant, I'm still quite reticent to read these books. I'll get to them at some point, no doubt about it, but I'm in no hurry to do so.
Then the announcement came that Hurley's The Stars Are Legion, a space opera stand-alone novel featuring a female-only cast, would be published in 2017. Again, this was acclaimed by the SJW clique and the book, more than a year prior to its release, received a lot of coverage from those sources. I had the same reservations about this forthcoming work, yet I resolved to give it a shot. This was a single, self-contained science fiction tale, and I wanted to review it. Thanks to the folks at Saga Press, I was able to get my hands on a review copy, which would allow me to read and review it before being "contaminated" by advance praise.
When all is said and done, I'm pleased to report that The Stars Are Legion is a good read. However, it suffers from too many shortcomings to even come close to the greatness that made the Bel Dame Apocrypha such an amazing series. The violence, the anger, the general badass vibe; it's all there. Unfortunately, the depth, the originality, and the superior characterization are absent, and The Stars Are Legion is a much weaker work for that.
Here's the blurb:
Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion. Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation - the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan's new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan finds that she must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion's gravity well to the very belly of the world. Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion's destruction - and its possible salvation. But can she and her ragtag band of followers survive the horrors of the Legion and its people long enough to deliver it? In the tradition of The Fall of Hyperion and Dune, The Stars are Legion is an epic and thrilling tale about tragic love, revenge, and war as imagined by one of the genre's most celebrated new writers.
The worldbuilding was my favorite facet of all three Bel Dame Apocrypha titles. Hurley's vision remained unique and the universe she created came alive as the story progressed over the course of the entire trilogy. Her narrative created a vivid imagery that made the ravaged world of Umayma and its characters leap off the pages. But that was then and this is now. True, a stand-alone book of relatively small size precludes the sort of depth that made Hurley's first series such a memorable read. And yet, by taking so many shortcuts, it appears that the author did not even attempt to imbue this one with as much depth as the story required to make total sense. Personally, I had no problem with an all female cast of characters. The Stars Are Legion doesn't suffer from the absence of men. Not at all. But why are there no men? Whatever happened to them, even if it took place generations ago? No explanation is offered. What are those world-ships and where does the Legion come from? Why do they orbit around the Core and what are they doing on the Outer Rim of the universe? How is it that each woman possesses a womb that can give birth to something in particular the ship/world needs to function? Why are the world-ships decaying? Why is it that each level is completely unaware of what transpires on the other levels? It's not that the backdrop and the premise for this tale are a bucket that doesn't hold any water. It's more a question that there is no bucket whatsoever. One of the best feelings one gets when reading a science fiction novel/series is when the author provides answers to the what, how, why, when questions that are at the heart of the plot. Kameron Hurley, who is not known to take the path of least resistance, doesn't even try to come up with answers, and that's major disappointment.
This being a blend of space opera and New Weird, with The Stars Are Legion Hurley is competing against authors such as Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Ian McDonald, Iain M. Banks, Richard K. Morgan, and James S. A. Corey. And I have a feeling that they would be crucified by critics and readers alike if they ever elected to take such shortcuts. To a certain extent, it's almost as though this book was written for the members of the aforementioned online SJW clique, those men and women who hold Hurley in such high esteem, and perhaps the more hardcore feminist genre aficionados out there, who would gladly overlook its inherent flaws because it furthers their own political and social agenda. I am at a loss as to why the worldbuilding aspect can be so poor an inadequate. It's not that the answers to those questions are half-assed, lame, or some kind of cop-out. There are simply no answers to speak of. The only people who could have provided them are the witches and seers found on the different world-ships, but they have all conveniently gone mad. In addition, Zan's journey through the various levels of the Katazyrna world-ship raises yet more questions to which absolutely no answers are forthcoming. Hence, to enjoy this one as much as possible, one needs to buckle up and try to enjoy the ride without questioning anything that takes place. It's odd. Very odd, to say the least.
I don't know if that's the case in the Worldbreaker Saga, but like in her first trilogy Hurley has a fixation on bugs and such in The Stars Are Legion. Once again, this one features strange insectile and organic technology. The evocative imagery that made the Bel Dame Apocrypha books such a great read is present in every chapter, and it's safe to say that Hurley will continue to wow us with her creativity or inventiveness for years to come. Visually, each level of the Katazyrna world-ship comes alive, and the same can be said of the other ships and the space in between. In that regard at least, in this novel Hurley is as impressive as ever.
The protagonists are the product of a war-torn, unforgiving, and decaying environment. Hurley's characterization is usually similar to that of gritty SFF authors such as Abercrombie, Morgan, and GRRM. Not for the faint-hearted, true, but oh so satisfying once more. One of the shortcomings of The Stars Are Legion may be the fact that Kameron Hurley was a bit too ambitious with her choice of POV protagonists and what links them together. Zan, suffering from amnesia, doesn't remember anything regarding who she used to be and why she keeps being sent on suicide missions to try to take control of the Mokshi world-ship. With basically no recollections whatsoever as to her identity and why she keeps being sent out there to fail every time, Zan's perspective reveals very little for the better part of the novel. To all intents and purposes, she is often as clueless as the reader. Jayd, the second point of view character, is the polar opposite. She knows everything, but shame and regrets prevent her from revealing too much. As a result, the reader remains in the dark for more than half of this book, and for more than two hundred pages you keep going forward without any idea as to what this story is supposed to be about. I say that perhaps it was a bit too ambitious to limit the narrative to only these two perspectives because one has to take a lot on faith and hope that everything will make sense later on. And that doesn't always work as well as Hurley intended. Thankfully, at some point the author has no choice but to have Jayd disclose what she and Zan, who still remembers nothing, have been planning for years. That's when the story picks up and things get interesting. The politics and betrayals up the game a few notches and Jayd's storyline is elevated to a new level. Sadly, during that time Zan is on a journey to get back from the belly of the world and that quest, though visually stunning, is nowhere near as captivating as what goes on elsewhere. The endgame ultimately brings the two plotlines together and offers an rousing finale. The only problem is that you can easily puzzle out Zan's true identity way before the revelation is made, which kills whatever punch that secret was supposed to have on the tale. Also, it would have been nice if the supporting cast had played a more important role in the greater scheme of things, and if they had had an occasional POV of their own. Sabita, Das Muni, Casamir, and Arankadash all had potential, but it was seldom exploited.
In terms of pace, my past experiences with Kameron Hurley have often been balls-to-the-wall and fast-moving sequences with never a dull moment. The Stars Are Legion is much more slow-moving as far as the rhythm is concerned, especially the chapters focusing on Zan's journey. The fact that the reader spends more than half of the book not really understanding what this story is supposed to be about doesn't help matters. Still, other than a few rough sections here and there, for the most part, even though the pace is not fast-moving, things remain intriguing enough to keep the reader turning those pages to discover what happens next.
What it comes down to is, if you can stop yourself from asking questions and try to enjoy the story as it moves forward, then chances are that you'll enjoy The Stars Are Legion. But forget what the blurb says. It is not a work in the tradition of The Fall of Hyperion and Dune. Far from that. Hurley's latest doesn't have enough substance to ever be compared to Frank Herbert and Dan Simmons' classics.
Can this novel be a good opportunity to discover Kameron Hurley for readers who are not yet familiar with the author, what with it being a self-contained stand-alone book? Maybe. For some, sure. And yet, since it is the weakest work I've read from Hurley, I feel that readers eager to find out what all the noise is all about should start by giving God's War a shot. Brutal, uncompromising, brilliant, enthralling: That's the Bel Dame Apocrypha in a nutshell. If The Stars Are Legion is someone's first exposure to Kameron Hurley, I feel that they would miss out on just how awesome an author she can be.