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'Stars' Is A Sequel That Goes A Bit Askew

Remember when Star Wars Episode 1 came out, and it was pretty much all about trade negotiations and senate debates (with the occasional pod race or poop joke to liven things up)? Well if you were one of those people sitting in the theater on opening day, reading the introductory crawl and thinking to yourself, Yes! I've always wondered about monetary policy and the influence of the trade federation on the internal politics of the Republic! then boy do I have a book for you.

Rjurik Davidson's newest novel, The Stars Askew (the second in a planned trilogy, following his debut, Unwrapped Sky) is a tale of politics, murder, politics, skinny-dipping minotaurs, more politics and long, philosophical discussions on the nature of rebellion. In Sky, the people of the city of Caeli-Amur waged a bloody (and successful) revolt against the oppressive Houses that had ruled their lives for generations. The seditionists fought and won, installing a shaky new government in the liberated city which promised freedoms and fairness for the people, a rosy future, vengeance against the oppressors, free cake and streets paved with gold.

Stars begins just a few weeks later and deals primarily (often exhaustively) with the aftermath of rebellion. What happens when the food runs out? When the guys who run the trains refuse to go to work? When trade stops and industry stops and no one quite knows what the new rules are? Within the leadership of the revolution, infighting begins almost immediately — a philosophical battle between the vigilants, determined to use force to maintain their control of the city and to quash all dissent among the newly liberated, and the moderates, who prefer diplomacy and equitable treatment.

While the former underclass of Caeli-Amur are reveling in their new freedoms, the new leadership is busily designing machinery for mass executions, stealing everything they can get their hands on, and frantically trying to figure out how to maintain their tenuous grip on power.

And while yes, this is a ripe territory in which to set a story, it's also a very messy place. And messy is exactly the word I'd use to describe the narrative that Davidson has pulled out of the chaos he's made.

Narratives, really. Plural. Because The Stars Askew follows three very separate characters who, for the bulk of the novel, have almost no contact with each other.

... it finds an odd sort of philosophical drive which powers a strong, surprisingly fast-moving conclusion, asking hard questions about the ugly necessities of revolution and how it changes those who live through them. But for me, it was just too long in coming.

First, there is Kata — a former spy and assassin for the Houses who had a change of heart in Sky and joined the seditionists. She is investigating the murder of one of the revolution's leaders (along with her friend, the aforementioned minotaur) and trying to navigate a path between the moderates and the vigilants.

Next, there's Armand, who was a House official and escaped during the fighting, walking off with the Prism of Alerion which contains within it the spirit of a not-quite-dead god. He plans to use the Prism to defeat the rebels and restore order — a fine plan, right up until he's betrayed, exiled, sent to the bloodstone mines (I know...), gets cancer, goes totally bonkers, sees the future, rides a griffin (I KNOW), falls in love, and makes plans to take over Caeli-Amur for himself which TOTALLY would've worked if not for the fact that he is betrayed like nine more times during the course of all this stuff happening. And also gets his arm cut off. Armand is a mess.

Finally, there's Maximillian, who has the ghost of a completely different not-quite-god sharing space in his head like some kind of nightmare AirBnB guest, refusing to leave, promising to teach him the secrets of thaumaturgy (because yeah, there's magic, too) but also Weekend At Bernie's-ing him every chance he gets. Which is funny, though it's probably not meant to be.

The main problem with Stars is its pacing. In keeping three, disparate plot threads moving (sometimes glacially), Davidson kills his own momentum time after time. And even within the action of each of these narrative arcs, he is constantly hamstringing the novel's thrust with historical digressions, explanatory passages describing the machinations of local politics and soliloquies on street-level realpolitik versus utopian skylarking.

But hey, if you're looking for a deep dive into the internecine politics of a painstakingly realized steampunk-meets-Westeros fantasy world, this is perfect for you. It's heavy, weird, occasionally histrionic, but fully imagined. And by the end of things — with the seditionists' rebellion falling apart and Caeli-Amur once again at war with itself — it finds an odd sort of philosophical drive which powers a strong, surprisingly fast-moving conclusion, asking hard questions about the ugly necessities of revolution and how it changes those who live through them. But for me, it was just too long in coming.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

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Jason Sheehan