Book Review: The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Universe After
Publisher: Tor (August 21, 2018)
Length: 448 pages
For readers getting ready to head into The Stars Now Unclaimed, you may want to strap in first. The story wastes no time in dumping our protagonist into a mission embroiled in a deep thicket of secrets, intrigue, and action. Jane, who starts off unnamed until her purposes behind remaining anonymous are revealed halfway through the book, is an agent for the Justified, an organization dedicated to locating and retrieving gifted young people scattered throughout the galaxy. Years ago, when the mysterious Pulse happened, whole worlds were changed when they lost all their technology due to the radiation, but one of its side effects also caused children to be born with strange, incredible powers. The Justified believe that these special children are the key to fixing the damage caused by the Pulse, which is why Jane has been dispatched to a wild and untamed planet to find one of them now, a teenager named Esa.
But almost immediately, things go to hell as Jane is ambushed by the Pax, an army of aggressive conquering zealots who were largely unaffected by the Pulse and believe that gives them the right to rule the entire galaxy. The retrieval job quickly devolves into a rescue mission as Jane desperately tries to get Esa off-world to some place safe, recruiting the help of some new and old allies, including her ship’s AI, a sentient robot named Preacher, a Justified information broker, as well as her roguish ex-lover Javi. Together, this ragtag team will need to help each other navigate through some dangerous and explosive conflicts in the hopes that they might stop the enemy from plunging the galaxy further into chaos.
If you wanted non-stop action, then you’ve come to the right place, my friend. Over the years I’ve read a lot of space opera, and The Stars Now Unclaimed blows them all away in terms of number of action scenes and battle sequences. But is this necessarily a good thing? Generally, I prefer beginning my reviews on a positive note, but today I’m leading with something that might be considered a double-edged sword. Your mileage may vary, of course, but personally I found the action scenes here to be too frequent, too drawn out, and much too bombastic. “The more, the better” is not always true, and I would point to this book as the perfect example. Having too much action can in fact rob a scene of its desired dramatic effect, and this was something I noticed again and again, especially with the final battle where I found myself feeling tempted to skim to the end.
The world-building is also fantastic, but like a lot of debut novelists, Drew Williams noticeably struggles with “show, don’t tell.” To his credit, Williams tries to get around explaining all the ins-and-outs of his huge and sweeping universe by pushing all those details into dialogue, but the resulting info dumps are still just as off-putting. That said, I do love the setting he has created, a world containing a mishmash of themes and concepts which feels to me like a loving tribute to a number of sci-fi intellectual properties. In addition to Firefly and The Expanse (the two touted by the publisher’s description), I also caught whiffs of everything from Star Wars and Star Trek to Guardians of the Galaxy and Mass Effect, making me think science fiction fans and pop culture geeks will be sure to fall comfortably into this one.
As for the characters, I appreciated how the narrative was mainly focused on a small, tightly-knit cast. Most of them felt lightly sketched, derivative and archetypal, and again, I was hit with the sensation that I’ve met them (or characters like them) before. For whatever reason though, I thought it worked, giving the book a throwback old-school vibe, all done in the spirit of fun more than anything else. The reason I felt so endeared to these characters was precisely because I recognized them for what they were from the moment I met them. They played off each other well, giving rise to many instances of sharp dialogue and interesting dynamics.
On the whole, The Stars Now Unclaimed gives me the impression of a debut that could use a little more polish, but broadly speaking, it’s pretty solid. In my view, a lot of the effort put towards the action could have been better served developing the characters or world building in a less info-dumpy fashion, but overall I was quite pleased with this novel and I probably wouldn’t say no to checking out the sequel.