Stars and Bones – by Gareth L. Powell (Review)

Stars and Bones Universe #1

Scifi, Space Opera

Titan Books; February 15, 2022

352 pages (ebook)
8hr 28m (audiobook)

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Author Website

6.0 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

When worst came to worst, the Angel stepped in to save us. Not an actual Angel mind, but super advanced aliens that stepped in in humanity’s last hour and saved it from destruction. So, kinda an actual Angel. Something that saved humanity. Or, rather, saved the Earth from humanity.

Now, cast out upon the stars, humanity exists on a multitude of great Arkships, where everything is provided and no one is left behind—a true paradise. And so the fleet wanders, knowing that the eye of the Angels will forever remain on them, and knowing that they can never return to Earth.

Eryn is a scout pilot. Together, she and her ship, the Ferocious Ocelot, scout the edges of the Arkships’ path as they wander through space. When her sister Shay disappears while responding to an alien distress call, Eryn insists on being part of the crew to find her.

Candidate-623 is a lonely rock, but harbors something both terrifying and deadly. Something that might spell humanity’s doom should it reach the Arkships. When the crew is attacked, Eryn races to warn the fleet, all the while dreading whether or not this certain something might have followed her home…

“Holy shit,” she breathed, “You are not going to fucking believe this.”

And she was right, I didn’t. At least, not at first. Because high above the atmosphere, something vaster and older than the Earth had reached down and snatched every ICBM from the sky, every torpedo from the ocean, and every tank shell, mortar round, and bullet from every battlefield on the planet.

And is was not at all amused.

Man, this was a weird one.

First off, if you’re put off by language, LGBTQ+ representation, and/or terribly done romance—maybe skip this one, eh? Otherwise, read on.

It started out like a house on fire: an extraterrestrial attack right out of the gate that quickly transformed into a desperate race against time. That transformed into a… mystery? Whereupon suddenly introducing several new characters and plot-lines around the third- or halfway mark. The last third read a bit like the latest Star Wars movies, where they just ran with whatever thing first came to mind (despite it making little sense in the overall narrative) and made sure to add plenty of action sequences.

Beware spoilers ahead for the romance! If you want to avoid them just skip the next paragraph.

The romance was… cringeworthy. What happens between Eryn and Li isn’t so much a will-they-or-won’t-they as it is a why-is-something-going-on-i-hadn’t-noticed. What starts out as a one-night stand (or, a not-even one-night stand) in the face of a certain-death mission, slowly resolves into… nothing. There are a couple of kisses, interspersed by long gaps where Eryn looks at Li like a guest, but a stranger. Seriously, they talk only a handful of times—and it actually equates to anything meaningful once. And yet I’m supposed to believe that they’re madly in love by the end? That Eryn is so smitten with the person she routinely describes as a stranger that she actually says “I realized that I was always going to love her unconditionally and forever” at the end. Now I realize that some people can go head over heels damn quick but… were they reading the same book I was, or did I just miss something? Because this romance seems so forced it literally made me cringe, and gape when they so unexpectedly ended up in love.

In addition to a truly cringeworthy romance, the conclusion to the story was a bit of a blur. By which I mean confusing. I’m not going to get into it because of spoilers, but… I spent half of the time lost and the other half either experiencing deja vu or wondering how it’d possibly come to this point. But despite all odds when the end actually came, all my questions had been answered. As far as I could tell, all major threads had been tied up. It was extremely odd, but extremely impressive.

Yes, there was a talking cat, no, I don’t want to talk about it.

Despite it all, Stars and Bones wasn’t bad. It had a solid story, so long as you overlooked all the tangents, pseudo-parenting, and the romance (ye gods, don’t get me going on the romance again). A race against the clock as humanity faces extinction. Where Eryn must do everything she can to save the human race, despite the fact that all of it should be so, so far over her pay grade. From an action and adventure stand point: it was a decent read; there was a lot of both action and adventure. As an existential crisis: it wasn’t bad; it tackled several surprising issues like the nature of love and friendship, parenting, existence, and perseverance. As a mystery: it was crap; a bit like playing pin-the-tail while ignoring any and all hints or clues—you’re bound to get it eventually, monkeys and Shakespeare and all. As a book though… Stars and Bones was certainly a mixed bag. It had a lot of strong points, but some weak ones as well. And there was a lot to unpack.

I believe that was the biggest problem I had with Stars and Bones: its identity. This is simply a case of trying to do to much. In its bones, this was a Science Fiction/Space Opera. But with a little bit of thriller thrown in. Political thriller too. Romance, as well. Mystery. Adventure. Allegory for life. Philosophical endeavor.

TL;DR

There’s a lot to love about Stars and Bones, partly due to the fact that there’s just so much going on in it. Too much, I’d argue. A science fiction/space opera by nature, the story tries to hit up every single genre on the way from start to finish. Thriller. Romance. Mystery. Philosophy. Existentialism. The list goes on. And in the end, there was just too much going on. Stars and Bones couldn’t seem to make up its mind on what it wanted to be. And while it pulled some of these transitions off seamlessly, others it definitely didn’t. The mystery and romance, to start. But either way a number was done on the pacing; what started out as a house on fire quickly transformed to a barnburner, then an… allegory for life? A decent read, but one that I just never could get a handle on. I promise you—there’s a good story in here somewhere, even if I could never find it.

Audio Note
I suffered a few burnouts reading this. I started it only to lose interest fairly quickly. Part of this could be down to timing—early March is a busy time of year for me, then I got the flu immediately after. But then these both happened in the early part of the story, when it’s all action all the time in Eryn’s POV, and we’re just learning the fate of Earth in Haruki’s. Eventually, I picked it up as an audiobook and read it to fruition. Rebecca Norfolk did a great job—most of the time. While her reading of Eryn and most other POVs proved excellent, whenever she contrived to do an accent it… just sounded ridiculous. Frank was passable; Sheppard and Ginet were decidedly not. The AIs were night and day; the Ocelot was great, while any others were flat and emotionless, even when they seemed to be expressing emotion.