REVIEW: THE STARS WITHIN
When greed is the most deadly disease of all...
I originally heard about this book during an interview that Kayla from Kay's Hidden Bookshelf did with the Author on her YouTube channel. The story sounded really intriguing and it is always nice to find a shorter book in the science fiction and fantasy genres so I figured I would pick it up while the eBook was on sale.
HOW I RATED IT
3.5/5 Some aspect of THE STARS WITHIN did not work as well for me as it did for others, but I still had a good time reading through this short, contemplative piece of science fiction that might actually appeal to people who aren't normally fans of the genre.
There are two main characters in this story: Thomas and Colette. The perspective changes between them in every chapter, though it won't be immediately obvious how their stories are connected. Each of them has a supporting cast of characters around them and while there are a couple of standouts, a lot of the secondary characters (mostly on Thomas's side) either fell flat or were just exceptionally kind without there being any explanation for their generosity in a world where things seem pretty dire.
Thomas works for THE mythrium mining company which is simply known as "The Company." We learn right away that he has caught cancer (for the second time) from the hazardous dust that he is constantly exposed to because of his job. He is obviously in a pretty dark place due to this news, especially since his beautiful wife is expecting with their first child. While this is certainly a very dramatic way to begin a story, I think it also led to me having a hard time connecting with him. Perhaps I just need to work on my empathy for strangers (including fictional strangers), but I really wished that we could have perhaps gotten to know him a little before his diagnosis. Even though I fully understood why he would be very inward and have to contend with a storm of emotions, I couldn't help but think of him as being somewhat self-centered for a large part of the book. Even during a chapter where he tries to do something heroic, I couldn't help but feel like he was doing it for semi-selfish reasons.
Colette, on the other hand, is someone I found to be deeply compelling. She is recruited back into military service for a mission with the highest of stakes. She joins a motley crew aboard a high-tech craft and begins a journey across the stars to first find someone of importance to both her and the mission, then to get information about the mysterious race of aliens known as "Radiants," and finally to their home so that they can eradicate the aliens before they can massacre mankind again. Along the way, I really admired Colette's bravery not just in fulfilling her duties, but also in how she faces some of the things that she struggles with internally.
I would class this world (or universe, I suppose) as being something of a dystopia. The general premise is that Earth has been drained of it's resources and humanity has taken to the stars to colonize other planets. The catch with this space travel is that it requires the extensive mining of mythrium to be used as fuel. The Company has a monopoly on this industry and created a system where their employees essentially become slave labor and are even forbidden from leaving their planets unless they have somehow managed to pay down the massive debts they accrue through treatment they need when they get hurt or sick on the job. It's a rather grim scenario, but one that doesn't feel especially far fetched considering how greedy corporations are in the world today. One piece of world building that felt missing for me for most of the book was the true nature of the Radiants in terms of where they came from, what they look like, what they can do, and what they want, but that is eventually disclosed at the end. I understood this choice, I just felt like maybe dropping little nuggets here and there would have helped me since I had a hard time feeling fully invested in that conflict with the threat they posed being so vague.
Even though the situations that both Thomas and Colette find themselves in are pretty grim, the overall tone of this story is relatively positive. For the most part, I think I appreciated this aspect, but I also had a hard time understanding why so many characters were so nice in a world that seems designed to step all over them all the time. This is probably a hypocritical complaint for me to make since I really hate the "grim dark" setup where every single character is kind of a scumbag. While I don't find those hyper-selfish characters to be particularly true to life, I also felt like the supporting cast of THE STARS WITHIN almost swing too far in the other direction. I wanted to better understand the comradery between Thomas and his friends, or feel a bit of the romance between him and his wife, or even get a little insight into why a character he meets toward the end is so willing to help him so extensively. There are also some distinct environmentalist overtones which I would not normally applaud (I don't enjoy it when any kind of overt messaging serves as the basis for a story regardless of whether I agree with the point or not), but I think in this case, I never got the sense that the author was being preachy or self-righteous and instead was just fictionalizing some perfectly reasonable concerns, especially when it comes to the greed of corporations and how that can impact individuals who are really just trying to do their best and have a good life. I feel like it is rare to see these (or any other) issues discussed in literature with any amount of subtlety or grace, so the fact that this book offers such a nuanced and interesting take on it is something I was quite impressed by.
It is very hard say anything more about the story without spoiling the book's ending, so I will keep all of that quite vague. I will say that Arch can write some rather exciting action sequences, both in space and on the ground. None of these are too lavish or distracting, but there are enough moments where characters find themselves in perilous situations to keep things interesting. I really appreciated the balance between developing the two main characters, building the world, and keeping the plot moving at a steady pace. I do think certain things could have been expanded a bit, particularly when it came to Thomas and his side characters or perhaps giving us a quick peak at the devastation The Radiants can cause, but there is also something to be said about keeping things lightweight in favor of keeping things moving, so a lot of this comes down to my personal preference. The ending also did not quite land for me. I admit I found it very clever and did not see it coming even though I was trying to predict how the two stories would come together the whole time, but I felt like some of my surprise was due to me being intentionally misled. While there are certainly some clues I can think of that hint towards the big twist, there were just as many little details that kind of make it not make much sense to me, even after letting it sit for a while. A big part of this might just be me overthinking it though.
While there is nothing special or crazy going on with fonts, formatting or anything, this is a polished eBook that feels well suited to reading on a Kindle. There are some heartfelt messages left by the author that were very sweet and I'd definitely recommend reading those (for me, the Kindle app always seems to jump straight into the first chapter so the author's note to readers can be missed and I had to make sure to go back and read it). It was also neat that the first couple chapters of another book from this publisher were included at the end.
While the prose was error free as far as I could tell, I felt as though it didn't always flow intuitively for me and I am surprised some of this was not cleaned up by the editor(s). The author has a rich vocabulary that I very much enjoyed, but if you're the type of person that doesn't like being constantly bombarded with new words, don't worry, Arch flexes his unique word choices sparingly which ultimately also heightens their effect in each moment.
This deeply personal and creative space adventure is something that I think could appeal to a much broader audience than most other science fiction. While not all aspects of it worked perfectly for me, I would still really recommend that people give it a chance, especially since it is so short.
(+) Colette and certain members of her crew were quite compelling and memorable.
(+) Exciting action sequences.
(+) A believable dystopian setting.
(+) Some awesome word choices that expanded my vocabulary by a couple of words.
(-) I found connecting with Thomas to be challenging sometimes (though I'm sure there are lots of people out there who will not have this problem).
(-) Some clunky sentences and conversations.
(-) Unclear character motivations for members of the supporting cast.
(-) A twist ending that didn't completely land for me even though I appreciated the creativity in how everything tied together.