Early pages of derivative plot forego author’s penchant for character in effort to set up something bigger
Growing up almost as much as fan of Christopher Paolini’s first novel Eragon as I was of Harry Potter, his long-gestating sci-fi project, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (TSIASOS), was destined to join my to-read pile. As part of a Shelf Awareness promotion I was afforded the opportunity to read a partial galley of Paolini’s new book ahead of its wide release date on September 15, 2020. I was giddy with excitement, especially considering that the full novel is listed at nearly 900 pages on Amazon. For weeks I contemplated how much of the story I would get to read before anyone else.
Come to find, I would read very little. The partial galley I received was 157 pages of the finished manuscript, which was just enough to meet the protagonist of TSIASOS, Kira Návarez, and witness the initial days following her first contact with an alien species.
You see, Kira is a xenobiologist working for one of Earth’s colonization corporations. Her job is to get shipped out among the stars to identify, catalog, and prepare new worlds for the human species. She finds it rewarding, if tedious, but she’s also willing to leave her job behind if it means setting down some roots. That is until the last day of her mission on the planet Adrasteia when a biological anomaly on the planet’s surface requires her to make an investigative trip. At the site of the anomaly she finds an alien relic and, more importantly, an alien.
Sadly, Paolini doesn’t seem to tread any new sci-fi ground in the early pages of his newest novel. The plot of every first contact film and book plays out as Kira is put into isolation. The isolation methods weren’t perfect because of extenuating circumstances (which also happens to be the literal name of one of the interplanetary ships), so further complications arise and Kira is subjected to tests and study, during which time she realizes that her contact with the alien (forthwith called “xeno”) has affected her in surprising ways.
The saving grace behind Paolini’s rehashing of existing tropes is that he resolves the isolation, tests, and fear of the xeno fairly quickly so that he can introduce the reader to the greater story: one that involves the threat of another, far more advanced alien species known only as “graspers” and their strange connection to the xeno Kira encountered on Adra.
However, while speed helps to move past cliched plot points, it also results in an unfavorable number of stilted dialogue moments and exposition dumps, which is highly uncharacteristic of Paolini’s writing. Throughout his Inheritance Cycle, one can actually read Paolini mature as a writer (the first entry came out when he was 18, and the last when he was 27). Across his first four novels he develops an innate aptitude for knowing when to “show” something to his readers instead of “tell” them about it. His characters from Eragon had tangible personalities and shared witty, uncertain, or humorous conversations, supplemented by thoroughly described, evocative settings. The characters of Kira and her colleagues in TSIASOS are flat. Even when they show emotion, the reactions at best lack nuance or at worst seem to be almost entirely nonsensical. The setting descriptions of TSIASOS sometimes retain the flair of Eragon—for example, an early description of Adra and its massive gas giant neighbor—but for the most part descriptions are rushed and barely sufficient to orient the reader. This is especially true when discussing the technologies of Kira’s reality. Acronyms like “FTL” (faster than light) and terms like “Markov drive” (a type of faster than light engine) are important to the plot, but they come without definition and sometimes without context. Whether this lack of immersive writing is a product of Paolini trying to tell the story similar to how a scientist might observe events or whether it’s a necessity due to the length of the novel has yet to be seen.
So much still needs consideration because, again, the partial galley only included 157 pages. Perhaps it’s unfair to weigh TSIASOS against the Eragon books, especially when I’ve only read a fraction of the former. Eragon was a story played out over four novels, right? And it was fantasy, not sci-fi.
Yet, even as I contemplate whether the two should be compared due to differences in form and genre, I’m struck by their similarities in structure. Both begin with a young protagonist who discovers a unique and powerful object: Eragon discovers a dragon egg and Kira discovers an alien relic/xeno. That powerful object results in a loss—that I won’t spoil here for either book—, followed by the realization that strange and powerful beings seek the powerful object. I find these parallels in plot points to be rather discouraging.
I certainly won’t make my final verdict on To Sleep in a Sea of Stars just yet. There is still plenty more to read of Kira Návarez when her full story is released in September. For now I will continue to wait and wonder whether or not Christopher Paolini turns out to be a one-trick pony.
*I did not receive compensation or promotion in exchange for this review.