Rating 8.1 (out of 10)
[Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read the first book in the series – The Wrong Stars – I give away some key plot points here]
Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars was a master class in how an author should stitch their world-building into a novel’s plot and character growth. Having a character—in this case 500-year-old cryo-sleeper Elena Oh—who needs everything explained to them is not a new trick; the fun of the rest of the novel revolves around the explainers learning that everything they thought they knew about their world was wrong.
At the beginning of The Wrong Stars, the crew of the salvage ship White Raven rescues Elena from her derelict ship. Elena spins a tale of barely escaping an encounter with terrifying alien beings who abducted her crew and altered her ship, a seed vessel sent out five centuries ago to find habitable worlds before the discovery of faster than light travel. Callie Machedo, the captain of the White Raven, informs her that humans have already made first contact with alien beings (who they call the Liars, because they literally lie about everything) who are anything but terrifying, and as far as humankind knows, humans and Liars are the only intelligent species in the universe.
A whole lot happens between that and the end of the novel (and if you haven’t read it yet, do so, then come back here), so if we skip to the new status quo established at the end of The Wrong Stars, the crew of the White Raven learns that there is a race of megalomaniacal super-beings called the Axiom who are sleeping while their unknown grand scheme is coming to fruition, and the Liars (most of them unwittingly) serve the Axiom by keeping humans away from the Axiom’s areas of space. The White Raven gains some very advanced Axiom tech and hijacks a pirate base on an asteroid (the pirates totally had it coming) and use it as a base of operations to learn about and thwart the Axiom’s plans.
There was no reason to expect The Dreaming Stars to duplicate the fiendish pace and table-turning plotting of its predecessor; narrative high-jumping can get tiresome as a baseline, and there are only so many times you can alter your readers’ understanding of the world you’re constructing without giving them plot-twist fatigue. The Wrong Stars ended right where it needed to, with our heroes and their companions reaching a firm understanding of the new rules of the game and their role in playing it. Not that there aren’t a few fun twists and surprises abound in The Dreaming Stars—they’re just more the plot-shaking rather than reality-shaking variety.
The Dreaming Stars picks up right where the first book left us, with the crew settling into their new home, dealing with the fallout from running afoul of the Elders, the powerful Liar shadow government that serves the Axiom. Elena and Callie are firmly a couple now and are feeling out the terms of their relationship. Their Liar ally Lantern purges all records of their involvement in the incident that put them at odds with the Elders and confirms that all the Liars who know about the White Raven are dead. Free to emerge from the shadows, Callie crashes her own funeral, and learns from her corporate honcho ex-husband that some of their ships operating near a new deep space colony have gone missing in a region of space Lantern flagged for possible Axiom activity. The prospect of getting paid to investigate the disappearances, while secretly looking into the Axiom, proves too enticing to pass up, so to the Taliesen system the White Raven goes. What they find there is definitely Axiom, and an immediate threat to the nearby planetary system.
If The Wrong Stars served as the equivalent of a “pilot episode”, The Dreaming Stars is the episode that primes the reader’s expectations for how the series will develop from book to book, and in that sense Pratt develops a comfortable pace and tone for the reader. It takes a little longer than expected for the plot’s inciting incident to establish a clear goal for our heroes, a forgivable offense one can chalk up to the new story formulations falling into place. Besides, we already like these characters and the world they inhabit; spending a little extra time with them living their lives is a welcome detour before the action and intensity takes over. The second half of the novel uses one of my favorite narrative devices: the “countdown clock”, in which the heroes face a time crunch on their way to annihilation, and limited resources to deploy. I don’t think the author quite exploits all the potential the countdown structure has to offer, but it does (self-consciously) serve up an enjoyable riff on Iain Banks’ classic The Player of Games.
Pratt delves into some aspects of this world that The Wrong Stars only hinted at—a jaunt to Jupiter’s moons shows us how humans live when they’re not zipping around the galaxy in spaceships, and the second half of the novel offers more detail on ship doctor Stephen’s hallucinogenic drug-centered religion The Church of the Ecstatic Divine. The Axiom’s larger designs also start to unfold, but not so much that we aren’t thirsting for the next installment. The Dreaming Stars may lack the manic buzz that defined its predecessor, but its steadiness inspires confidence that this series is built to last.