Book review: Stars and Bones by Gareth L. Powell

(courtesy Titan Books)

If you’ve read a lot of science fiction, there’s an extremely good chance that you have read an enormous amount of space opera, a significant chunk of the genre that dares to imagine what humanity might be like spread out among the stars and what threats might await those engaging protagonist heroes who will come, often spitting attitude and sparkling bon mots, to save us from.

There’s a reason it’s highly popular; because of the breadth and depth of narrative ambition and often the length afforded these novels, writers have a chance to let lose with extravagant world-building, involved characterisation and storytelling that spreads over multiple years and centuries or millennia, all of which makes for utterly immersive books in which you can happily lose yourself for a good long reality-defying time.

The impressive thing about a recent addition to the genre, Stars and Bones by Gareth L. Powell, is that it manages to tell an awe-inspiringly massive story in a cleverly compact 347 pages, all while bringing forth fully-fleshed out characters (quite literally at times in this horror-laced tale), a sprawling story of humanity on the move from a dying Earth and a threat that could end the spread of people throughout the galaxy once and for all.

That’s a lot to pack into a page count that’s often half that of many of its contemporaries, but Powell manages it with ease, serving up an engaging story that takes us from the heart of the Continuance, a 1000-ship strong fleet of 25km-long arks, each with individual personalities and stories, through the planet Candidate-623 (C-623) on which lurks a terrifying entity who, and this is understating it markedly, does not share the same values we do.

“Now, seventy-five years after our salvation, most humans lived their entire lives aboard the Thousand Arks of the Continuance. They were born, raised and found useful employment within those protective hulls. Their world consisted of corridors, arenas, artificial beaches and parks. Only those who had ventured a little further afield saw the fleet as it truly was—as a thousand islands in an ink black sea.” (P. 55)

Driven by a malevolent curiosity, the threat uncovered on C-623 takes out a ship of explorers, threatens to do the same to the ship sent to find them, which is captained by the sister of the slain advance party, and eventually finds its way back to the Continuance where bloodily violent havoc is unleashed.

Quite how humanity finds itself many, many light years from home after 75 years of travelling the stars is a spoiler-filled thing of richness in itself, and Powell manages to slip some neat exposition into the story without once slowing the peace, the past and the present combining neatly in a story that terrifyingly posits whether there will in face be a future to worry about.

Under Powell’s immeasurable talented hand, we are quickly brought to speed on the current shape and composition of the space-borne human race, and why it has come to be solely out on board these ships, which are supported by a fleet of auxiliary craft including the ship, the Furious Ocelot, commanded by Eryn King, who with an AI-mind who is the mind, heart and soul and a snarky talking cat, who go ahead of the fleet to find resources and planets that might support them in some way.

It’s a relatively bucolic existence, everyone content with their lives and eager to see what lies ahead for a race who’s been plucked from certain doom and given the chance to re-invent themselves and hopefully lay out a kinder, gentler, more hopeful future.

That is until we encounter an entity that will most assuredly give you the heebie-jeebies as you read Stars and Bones, and discover that perhaps things aren’t quite so peaceful after all.

Powell, however, isn’t a writer simply content to sit back and let the body count stack up; rather while people battle to stop the entity consuming the billions of souls on the arks, King, her AI bud, and stack of new friends and colleagues, all come together to see if there isn’t a way for humanity to duck around a collective existential snuffing out a second time.

It’s a desperate quest that involved the reclusive, socially awkward father of the modern human race, some obliquely intense conversations with an intelligence far beyond our own and the kind of sacrifice and soul from which truly worthwhile things are often made.

All of which means that while Stars and Bones is scary and thrillingly so much of the time, it is, very much in keeping with the escapist expansiveness of the space opera genre, a compulsively immerse dash to a finish line whose very existence, despite the tenacity of King et. al., remains in question for pretty the entire length of this invigoratingly alive novel.

“‘Holy hell,’ I said. “Will you look at that?’

The ark bore little resemblance to its fellows. For reasons known only to itself, it had restructured itself into the shape of a human fist—a smooth, carved golden fist that measured fully twenty-five kilometres from knuckle to wrist.

‘Now that,’ the Ocelot‘s voice came from the console, ‘is a statement.'” (P. 272)

Moving at a fearsomely fast that keep you on the edge of your seat pretty much at the whole way, Stars and Bones nevertheless finds time for awe and wonder at the non-terrifying parts of the universe and for a great deal of searching, meaningful emotional intimacy between people.

It’s a heady mix of action and humanity and it works superbly well.

Carrying a word of caution that even in a possibilities-filled place like the galaxy where resource-rich planets abound and evolutionary bounty is vigorously plentiful that darkness can lie in wait, Stars and Bones has a beating heart of family, belonging and community at its heart, a furiously lively antidote to the threat laying waste to the arks’ inhabitants, and a major plus for the human race that in the end, along with some help from an old, well-known “friend”, is the key to our fate.

Stars and Bones makes a strong and oft-times affecting case for the fact that we do not value the transformatively sustaining of connection anywhere near enough; it has always been there for us and in even in an age where we live inside 1000 arks that spirit us through the inkily empty realms of the galaxy, and perhaps we take it too much for granted?

As it is, by story’s end, and it ends in ways that are both full-tilt speed ahead and gloriously ruminative (even if that doesn’t happen on the run), it’s worth is proved once and for all concerned, and it is also the sacrifice paid by us to ensure that we can continue to stay connected, to love and care for each other and to keep moving forward through the darkness on our way to some sort of collective light.

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