Audiobook Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
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 (Overall): 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Macmillan Audio (September 15, 2020)
Length: 32 hrs and 29 mins
Narrator: Jennifer Hale
Best known for his YA fantasy Eragon, Christopher Paolini has taken a massive leap with To Sleep in A Sea of Stars, venturing into the world of adult sci-fi, and I won’t lie, I was a bit skeptical when I first heard about the book. I believe this would be his first full-length novel in almost ten years following the end of The Inheritance Cycle, and I do emphasize full-length because this sucker is nearly 900 pages long in print, a whopping thirty-two and a half hours in audio. I mean, trying his hand at a completely different genre is one thing, but that’s also a pretty big ask from readers in terms of time and emotional commitment.
So how did it all work out? Well, I think the answer to that would depend on whether or not this is your first Paolini, and to a greater extent, how much experience you have with the science fiction genre. Speaking for myself, I’ve never read any of The Inheritance Cycle books so I went into this as a complete newcomer to the author’s work, and I have to say I enjoyed his storytelling style and writing. On the other hand though, I am also a voracious reader of sci-fi, and I couldn’t help but notice a lack of originality and depth to the plot and themes of the book, which encompasses and rehashes a lot of genre elements that will feel very familiar.
To Sleep in A Sea of Stars follows Kira, a xenobiologist stationed at a research facility on a far-flung moon with a team of her fellow scientists, which includes her boyfriend Alan. Upon the completion of their assignment, Kira and Alan have plans to get married and join a group of colonists sponsored by their employer to settle on a new world and start a new life together, but before those dreams could come to pass, disaster strikes. While doing a final run-through of the system before they leave, Kira notices the remnants of a strange alien relic on the planet and decides to investigate. At her touch, however, something ancient is awakened, causing the dust to swirl about her and cover her entire body in a mysterious black substance.
Kira loses consciousness, and when she wakes up again, much time has passed. She finds out that her team had rescued her, but they too are at a loss as to what happened. What’s clear though, is that the alien “suit” has become a part of her, and she can no more get rid of it than she can rid herself of her skin. To her astonishment, it is also sentient, forming a connection with her mind and calling itself “The Soft Blade.” Without revealing too much, all I’ll say is that what comes next doesn’t end well for Kira or her friends. Soon, our protagonist finds herself hunted, presumably by the alien species alerted by her discovery of the symbiont. Drawn into a galactic war, Kira has no choice but to take a stand and defend humanity from its enemies on all sides.
As I said, there’s nothing too groundbreaking about the novel’s premise, and after a promising start, the plot ultimately settles into a comfortable pace while remaining safe within well-trodden territory, becoming a rather pedestrian space opera. It pretty much has all the tropes, from alien invasions to out-of-control AI. Still, to his credit, Paolini does have some cool ideas which include interesting world-building concepts related to alien worlds and technology. Yet perhaps what’s most significant of all about To Sleep in A Sea of Stars is the fact that it is a labor of love. In the author’s afterword, he pours his heart out on the writing process behind the book, which was years in the making, and needless to say, that kind of enthusiasm is very catching especially when you can sense that passion for his creation in every word.
That being said, it would be a lie to claim that every single page of this doorstopper of a novel provided non-stop engagement. It helped that the focus of the story was mostly on Kira, removing the need to divide my attention between multiple perspectives, but that didn’t mean the plot didn’t meander or drag on at times. In fact, given the book’s length, it was probably inevitable. There’s no sugarcoating it; there was a lot of bloat, and sections where not much seemed to be happening. Paolini also tends to focus all of his attention on Kira and everything that is immediately around her, and so while I cared a lot for her as a character, I couldn’t really say the same about most of her supporting cast. Of course, there were exceptions, like Falconi, and I particularly enjoyed the slow-burn build-up to the romance between Kira and the roguish captain. Unfortunately though, many more secondary characters fell to the wayside, drifting in and out from the periphery without making much of an impact.
In sum, To Sleep in A Sea of Stars was my first book by Christopher Paolini, and maybe it’s because I listened to the audiobook, but I found that his writing style flowed well with an assessable quality that made it easy to get into. The problems I had were mainly in the storytelling and pacing—like an overreliance on timeworn sci-fi tropes, underdeveloped side characters and an uneven plot. And yet, although this was not a perfect novel, I was impressed with its scope and the sheer amount of love and effort the author obviously poured into it.
In the end, should you read this book? Well, I personally thought it was worth the read—or in my case, the listen. Given the novel’s length, I’m sure not everyone will feel the same way, but I especially enjoyed my time with the audiobook edition of To Sleep in A Sea of Stars. I confess I chose to review this format specifically for the narrator, the amazing Jennifer Hale, whom I adore for her voicework in video games. The end of the audiobook edition also includes a brief but fantastic interview between Paolini and Hale, which was very illuminating. For one thing, I did not know this was her first time narrating an audiobook, but considering her years of experience in voice acting, I was not surprised at the phenomenal quality of the performance that she delivered, and her heartfelt reading simply made the hours fly by because I could listen to Commander Shepard talk at me forever.