I’m one of those people who likes it when things are predictable. Not all the time, of course, because if everything was predictable then life wouldn’t be worth living, but there’s something to be said about certain things that turn out as one expects them to – like paychecks, for instance. Or poached eggs. Or a book by an author who’s turned out great material before.
At least, that’s what I had in mind when I picked up Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion. Prior to picking it up I’d started reading a YA novel by an author I hadn’t encountered before, and since my recent history with YA has been rather fraught, I decided that I’d keep Hurley’s book in reserve, just in case the YA book turned out like so many others of its kind and pissed me off. I did this under the assumption that, since I really liked Hurley’s previous books, then this latest novel of hers would, in all likelihood, be a read I’d enjoy as well. The fact that it was a one-shot definitely added to the appeal of making it my “Read in Case of White People Love Triangles at the End of the World” backup plan.
As luck would have it, the YA book proved to be surprisingly inoffensive, and so I was able to move on to The Stars Are Legion with a light heart – which was a good thing, as it turned out, because Hurley’s novel is dark, and bloody, and seriously messed up. So: pretty much par-for-the-course for anything Hurley’s ever written, and therefore something that makes me quite happy (in a sobered, quiet way, of course).
The Stars Are Legion is set in the far-distant future, in an equally distant part of the galaxy. There, a group of world-ships called the Legion is consumed in war, but this has gone on for so long that no one is even sure why they are at war in the first place. In the meantime, the world-ships break down and decay, and as they die, one by one, those living on them realize that something must be done, lest they lose the only homes they have left.
Zan is fairly sure that she has a role to play in the war – it’s just that she doesn’t quite remember what that role is, or much of anything else, for that matter. She’s also fairly sure that there is something else that she ought to be doing – something to do with the woman named Jayd, whom she doesn’t remember much of except that she’s in love with her. But until she can figure that out she is sent once more to the world-ship called the Mokshi, which only she, apparently, can enter and supposedly conquer. It is also the only place where she can recover her lost memories, or so Jayd tells her. And since she wants those memories back, Zan dives right back into the Mokshi despite her own misgivings. During this round, however, she is stopped by a group of raiders from one of the other Legion worlds, and this attack leads her down a path that she never expected she would walk. It also reveals to her the plan she and Jayd engineered long before: a plan that would free them from the Legion’s slow spiral into destruction – and maybe, save them all in the process.
Since this is a standalone novel, it’s almost guaranteed to attract readers who may have been curious about Hurley’s writing, but haven’t really been able to get into it because her most well-known works, like the Bel Dame Apocrypha/God’s War trilogy and the ongoing Worldbreaker Saga series are, well, series. Even though the former’s already finished, it can be hard for readers to want to commit to reading three whole books when they don’t really know what they’re getting into. As a result, I’m sure there are plenty of readers who are picking up The Stars Are Legion in the hopes that it will give them insight into what to expect from Hurley’s writing.
To those readers, all I can say is that they should brace themselves, especially if they’re the sorts of people who have weak stomachs. Hurley is currently one of the best writers of grimdark, an SFF subgenre (in?)famous for the levels of violence, gore, and bleak hopelessness the works under its banner contain. Hurley, in particular, specializes in works that involve a lot of blood and other bodily fluids being spilled in many different and often uncomfortable ways.
But what distinguishes Hurley from the rest of the grimdark crowd (and what makes her a cut above a great many of them, in my opinion) is that most of the bloodiness – especially so in The Stars Are Legion – is about being a person with a uterus and ovaries, and having to live with the biological and socio-cultural reality that having said organs brings to a person’s life. Ask anyone still in possession of those organs and many will say that having them is not fun, especially if said person also happens to suffer from PCOS. Since a person with a uterus and ovaries can also carry a child and give birth to said child, Hurley also pays attention to the messiness, pain, and trauma that is childbirth. A lot of media tends to portray childbearing and childrearing in soft light and pastel colours, but Hurley does not shy away from portraying it as it really is: difficult, life-threatening, bloody, and very, very gross.
All of that is present in The Stars Are Legion – indeed, is central to the story itself. Readers are going to be quick to notice that there are no people with penises and testicles anywhere at all in the novel. This absence is a point in and of itself, I think: commentary on the fact that, contrary to what a lot of SFF may seem to show, people in possession of a penis and testicles are not the only ones capable of pain and bloodshed. Indeed, in many ways, pain and bloodshed are more the realm of people with uteri and ovaries, something built into their very bodies – which, again, runs mostly contrary to how a lot of SFF tends to portray said people with uteri and ovaries. It’s all very enlightening, and a delight to read, in my opinion, so long as the reader is capable of handling all the blood and mucus and pulsing squishy things.
At this point, it should be clear to the reader of this review that there is some very, very interesting worldbuilding going on here. Again, that’s not surprising, since Hurley’s also well-known for some absolutely fascinating worldbuilding in her works. But what new readers need to know is that Hurley subscribes to what I like to call the “sink or swim approach”: meaning, there are enough clues throughout a story for a reader to piece together an image of the world in which a story is set, but rarely is anything ever stated explicitly. For the most part, I like this approach to worldbuilding, since it lets the author keep pushing the story forward without slowing the pace down for too long. This is especially important in a standalone novel, where there isn’t enough length in which to really get down to the setting’s nitty-gritty details.
However, for some odd reason, that technique just doesn’t seem to quite work as well as it should in The Stars Are Legion. While I totally get everything that’s relevant to the novel’s main plot, and I can see the world quite clearly in my imagination (in all its slimy, tentacled glory), there are still plenty of details that I wish had been expanded upon, but weren’t, and so I’m left with a lot of questions. For instance: just who and what are the Legion? Where did they come from? Why are they at war? Why is the Legion made up solely of people with uteri and ovaries? These details aren’t relevant to the novel’s plot, but they’re still questions I wish had answers to.
Of course, my issue could also be down to the fact that the novel is really narrated from two, first-person points-of-view: one half narrated by Zan, who got her memory wiped and therefore spends a lot more time trying to get it back rather than trying to figure out the finer details of the Legion and its history; and the other half by Jayd, who might still have her memory but has other, much bigger concerns on her plate. Also, part of the whole point of the plot is the slow reveal of Zan and Jayd’s true mission, the tension of which can easily be snapped and lost by digressions into finer detail about the setting’s background and history.
And yet, at the same time, I keep thinking that maybe Zan, Jayd, and indeed the other characters like Rasida, Das Muni, Casamir, and Arankadash, might have been more interesting, more complex, and more fully fleshed-out if I knew just what kind of history was driving their motives. This is especially true with Zan, Jayd,and Rasida; as characters, they’re fine just the way things are at the moment, but I can’t help but think that they might be even more fascinating if I knew just what kind of culture and history had moulded them into the people they are in the novel’s present day. I can see glimpses of that history scattered throughout the novel, but I think a fuller presentation would be better.
Overall, The Stars Are Legion is a perfect, standalone encapsulation of everything a reader can expect from Kameron Hurley’s work: dark, bloody, and violent enough to satisfy the most discerning readers of grimdark. While the story itself as a whole is relatively satisfying, I think the length constraints in keeping this story a self-contained standalone has resulted in certain details not getting fleshed out as much as they should – details that might not have much bearing on the main plot, but which might have helped in fleshing out characters a little bit more. These flaws, however, are minor, and I strongly encourage readers with a high tolerance for violence, blood and gore to pick up this four-star read.
The Stars Are Legion is available on Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the title to find them all.