The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
They say don't judge a book by its cover and that's especially true in this case. Never has a book deserved a pulpy, lurid, colorful cover more, and what did it get instead? Some generic photoshopped planets in gold and black. I read the premise for this a while back and thought it was interesting, but was put off by the cover; it looked like your standard-issue hard-or-military SF cover. Thankfully I picked it up because 1) I heard it had lots of ladies and 2) it was one of the few books on my to-read list available in audio from my library. This book is not your standard-issue anything. I love this book. It's easily in my top 5 so far this year, and might be in my top 20 of all time.
What this cover doesn't convey, but could and should, is the primal, goopy, biological nature of the book. Hurley has written a true successor to Russ and Tiptree, interbreeding Russ's adventurous heroines with Tiptree's weird bioforms and the staunch feminism of both to create a fleshy beauty of a tale.
The story follows a woman named Zan who has just awoken on a ship with severe injuries and has no memory of her former life. The people that surround her claim they are her family, but she feels this is deeply wrong - and she also feels some strong, non-family-like feelings for Jayd, a woman who is constantly by her side.
Then Zan finds out this has happened before - many times. She is sent out to fight, she loses, and she comes back with no memories. But this time might be different. She is sent to the bowels of the ship and has to force her way back to the surface, while Jayd's mother marries her off to secure an alliance that might have consequences her mother doesn't realize.
But none of that plot description makes any sense unless you know the key thing about this world: in the Legion, ships are biological and circle (apparently, according to other reviews) an artificial sun. And all the ships are dying, save one that has been able to detatch itself from the 'thing' at the center of their solar system and move of its own accord. This ship is the one Zan is sent out to fight over and over.
Oh, and every creature on the ship and every ship component is birthed. This is a book about wombs and bodies and birth.
I loved this book. I loved the atmosphere, the visceral body horror, the slimey-stickiness. I loved how different it is from anything I've ever read. I love that all the characters are women and that makes *sense* for the world and that the world revolves around life-giving.
Full disclosure, I listened to the audiobook, and while I wasn't the biggest fan of the narration (I think there were two narrators, one for Jayd's chapters and one for Zan's, but I honestly couldn't tell them apart), it wasn't a hindrance. I liked that truly strange accents from the center of the ship were not quite recongizable or mappable to any Earth language - like the narrator had come up with a unique combination of phonemes. And they doubled down for characters who were supposed to have similar accents, which was cool.
Zan meets a lot of people along her journey, which is a Quest in the most traditional sense. She starts out in the deep center of the ship with the trash and refuse and has to fight her way through many levels, encountering races and cultures that people on the surface don't event know exist. Hurley does an excellent job creating a cast that is varied and vivid where even months later they feel as real to me as when I was reading. The idea of pushing your way out of the center of a core of flesh layer by layer is fascinating and Horrifying with a capial H.
The story pushes forward through some completely unexpected and inventive detours though it resolves fairly quickly and predictably come the final act. There was so much *un*predictable, weird, engrossing stuff in the plot and the world and the characters that I can forgive the ending - but I absolutely want more Legion.
I don't really buy that a civilization can be completely unaware of several other civilizations that live within the same lump of flesh - the world just seemed physically too small for that to be realistic. But it's supposedly a decaying world and no one knows how to fix anything, or how any of them got in this mess to begin with. If there were a sense of history of the Legion, maybe it would be easier to accept, but this is a story very tightly focused on the personal (and narrated by someone with amnesia) so history is absent.
And about the amnesia. Stories that start out with amnesia are risky, and I think my biggest complaints with the story are related to the amnesia, but Hurley successfully avoids most of the tropey problems. Zan is capable, despite her memory loss. She thinks about it occasionally but it doesn't overwhelm her personality. It does loom too large in the story, though. Zan is sent out to attack a ship that kills everyone but her *many times*, strangers often treat her with far too much deference, and she knows that she's not from the ship she's currently on. What ship could she *possibly* be from, and who could she *possibly* have been before? It's obvious to the reader from the very beginning but it doesn't occur to Zan until she's basically told.
The slightly unrelated:
I'm currently reading the Dominion of the Fallen books by Aliette de Bodard - a very different series about an alternate-reality Paris where fallen angels reminiscent of vampires have just come off a devastating battle that has sapped most of the city of its strength and beauty, with occasional appearances from Asiatic immortals and minor deities. They're similar in many ways, though. The sense of decay and lost power and desperation pervades both. There's a long history that is critically unexplored and leaves gaping holes in both stories (a much more grievous offense in the Dominion books, IMHO). People are petty and conniving and weak, House/ship alignment rules everything, clever powerful sadists manipulate women who are fearful of *and* drawn to them simultaneously, an underclass functions as its own separate world, and both have excellent queer/female/POC representation. The Stars are Legion is a stronger work in pretty much every way, but I might meditate more on these parallels for my reviews of de Bodard.
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