Rating: 8.7 (out of 10)
Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars seems to have found a sweet spot between John Scalzi’s acid-tongued space adventures and the interplanetary political maneuvering of The Expanse series. The story follows the crew of the salvage ship White Raven, and the mess they put themselves (and the human race) in when they happen upon a centuries old derelict ship and awaken its sole occupant, Elena. Elena believes she is bearing news of humanity’s first contact with an extraterrestrial species, only to discover that humans have been coexisting with a species known as the Liars (so called for reasons you have to read to believe) for hundreds of years. But as Elena’s memory of her encounter returns to her, the crew of the White Raven and its captain, Callie, discover that the Liars may not be the only other spacefaring species out there in the universe.
The Wrong Stars has more plots twists than most novels twice its length, so to reveal much more about what happens would result in one egregious spoiler after another. Of all the things that impressed me about this book, the shear amount of story the author manages to cram into such a compact word count is stupefying. There are no holding patterns anywhere in this book, no asides or digressions that waste a single drop of ink. The climax delivers the goods and then some, and I was particularly impressed with how efficiently the author caught all the balls he had in the air while tossing up a few more for a presumed sequel.
The way Pratt unpacks the culture and background of his future history is remarkable enough; the way he then drops it on its head and blows it out an airlock is even more so. Stories are supposed to be about disruptions to the status quo – it’s a basic requirement. Your protagonist’s world is (A), then (A) is damaged when (B) happens, then the protagonist fights to solve (B), resulting in (C), which is now the new (A). What separates a good writer from a mediocre one is the ability to make that formula feel fresh every time. An exceptional writer can play that formula like a violin. Tim Pratt is an exceptional writer. The Wrong Stars is the kind of novel that keeps fooling you into thinking it’s revealed all its secrets just before it hits you with another stunner. If Mr. Pratt does not already teach a class on how to do this, he should. All of the other writers need to take that class.
If I have any complaints, it’s that the up-tempo pace leads to a few plot maneuvers – particularly in the middle part of the book – that feel rushed, maybe even a little forced. The novel’s central romance suffers the most from this, though “suffer” is a relative term when discussing something as entertaining and imaginative as The Wrong Stars. A few of the supporting characters get shortchanged as well: the story seems to try to plow right through them, barely slowing down enough to let them grab ahold and get pulled along.
It’s easy to swallow a few lumps, though, when you’ve got a novel this compelling and funny and engrossing to read. And if nothing else, it’s worth reading for the Liars. If you are a science fiction fan, you need to have the Liars in your life. Trust me on this.
Many thanks to Netgalley and Angry Robot for the opportunity to read this ARC.