Thursday, December 22, 2022

Microreview[Novel]: The Stars Undying by Emery Robin

 Billed as "queer space Cleopatra", this delivers not only on that promise, but on beautiful prose and genuinely thoughtful interstellar politics, along with the players and how they think of their own stories.

Cover illustration by Marc Simonetti

The Stars Undying was sold to me as "queer space Cleopatra for people who liked A Memory Called Empire". This is both a high bar to reach for, and one that the book absolutely crashed through with carefree abandon, fulfilling both parts of that recommendation and a good deal more besides.

The story follows Altagracia, princess and prophetess of a planet called Szayet, as she fights a civil war against her twin sister to regain her throne, and deals with the politics of her planet spinning out into the attention of the interstellar Ceian Empire, who hold their debts and to whom they are a client kingdom, bound in precarious autonomy at the leisure of the more powerful empire. It's a story of politics intertwining with the personal, and people navigating the complex webs of loyalties, beliefs, cultures and legacies to survive, thrive or dominate within a hungry empire. It is also a story about rulership, about religion, and about power.

We have as our viewpoint characters Altagracia herself, our pseudo-Cleopatra, and Ceirran, the Ceian Empire's answer to Julius Caesar. While they are interesting characters for their (often obvious) call backs to their historical counterparts, this rapidly becomes less of the focus, simply because both of them are written to have distinctive and incredibly compelling voices. They are both deeply interesting, thoughtful and above all clever people in whose heads it is fascinating to reside. And this is one of the things Emery Robin does so well - it is surprisingly rare for characters to be declared as very clever and for it to be clear and plausible on the page. It's a hard thing to write for a reader to really, emotionally believe. But Robin has absolutely done it. This is part of what makes the book so reminiscent of A Memory Called Empire (alongside and intertwined with the politics), but the way in which they are clever, the quickness and the wry wit, calls to mind nothing more for me than Tom Stoppard plays. You could put Altagracia and Ceirran in Arcadia or The Real Thing and make them fit without too much wiggling - their dialogue would slide easily into that quick, riffing fluidity that Stoppard's characters have. And it's this easy intelligence, and grace within it, the self-confidence of two people who know they're smart and show the reader it's true with every word, who bounce off each other with constant smiling challenge, that gives them their chemistry with each other, and to the reader. They feel, as soon as you meet them, like two people who've finally found a person who's challenge enough for them, and are drawn inexorably to the challenge as much as the person behind it. And, because we see each through the eyes of the other, we see how that attraction - in the literal as well as the romantic sense - resolves over and over again with how their situation changes.

But they are bound together by more than that attraction. Both characters exist in a complex political situation, inspired by and mapped at least partially onto the political situation of the end of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, and the aftermath in Rome and the Roman world. It's an unstable time after a vicious and bloody civil war, and a time in which much sits on the brink of change. A perfect time for a novel to be set in, then. And by being inspired by this existing political narrative, the author has a ready made set of plausible relationships and motivations to work with - no need to invent a political climate from whole cloth. It's a tactic that works well in many novels, and does so perfectly here.

Which isn't to say what's being done is easy. Robin has clearly and beautifully embodied those politics, making them real to the reader while we see how they affect the characters, rather than with the distance of history. It isn't just that Ceirran has fought Quinha, this universe's Pompey, but that he has also loved her as his friend and mentor, and we see throughout the story his complex feelings on her as a person as well as her place in the political landscape. Likewise, while there is the obvious feeling and magnetism between the two protagonists, they also have to reckon, constantly, with their respective political positions, and that they do so so naturally is a testament to Robin's skill and deftness with them - the political side of things never feels crammed in, or awkward alongside their personal feelings. They are both, constantly, political creatures who cannot and would not choose to escape that side of themselves, and so we see it in everything they do and say, page by page, just as much a part of their character as Altagracia's love of poetry or Ceirran's feelings about his scar.

As much as this is a testament to handling the real politics of the ancient world with clever grace, it is also a testament to the art of deciding to mess with things for the sheer fun of it. The best reimaginings of history as speculative novels are willing to bend, break or twist their source material for the sake of a point or a good story, to see it again through a new lens or make it give us something different to the original. They use the original more as a starting point than a destination. And The Stars Undying does likewise. There are superficial changes - many characters have a different gender than their original, not least Ana Decretan, a swaggering, queer woman who embodies her inspiration Marc Antony as well as any straight historical retelling - but there are some significant ones too. The timeline of Roman history gets a serious bashing for the sake of tightening the plot's focus, and allowing the author to make clear the points that are the core themes of the story. Figures and events have been concatenated or left out entirely, for the service of a better told plot. Where authenticity to history would obfuscate the plot, it has been thrown out of the window, and where it does the plot justice, kept in, and the story is a better one for it.

A part of this is the synthesis of kingship and religion - the story is deeply concerned with both, and their effects on people, on rulers, on belief and justice and personal action, and in order to make this abundantly clear, the Roman discomfort with kingship in all its forms has been replaced with a Ceian distaste for organised religion. Altagracia is then, in her role as not just a queen but the living prophet of the undying soul of a historical god-conqueror (a part of the world-building that is fascinatingly done and drawn out through the story), playing into a huge pile of cultural fears for the empire she's bound to. Ceio is deeply disestablishmentarian, banning religion and religious accoutrements in all forms, and sneering at those who believe within its evergrowing empire. It also tightens the narrative in its focus on power, and how power affects people, what lengths they are willing to go to for it - when rulership and godhood are intertwined, the stakes become that much higher. To get this synthesis, and all the good it does for the story, you have to play fast and loose with a lot of historical events, and so even for someone with a fairly deep knowledge of the period of history at hand, there remain the stakes of uncertainty - just because it's not what happened in history, doesn't mean it couldn't happen here.

That being said, the knowledge of history is played on too. The story isn't light on foreshadowing, and there are parts where it feels deliberately drawing the reader in, knowing they know what could happen next. Altagracia particularly as narrator is occasionally prone to dropping in a bit of hinting before we are drawn back to Ceirran's perspective, and leaving acknowledged absences in the narrative with a promise to fill them later and just enough doubt to make it genuinely tense.

It comes up in the world-building too. The planet of Szayet, an analogue for ancient Egypt, has been inverted into a flooded world, full of treasures of its long history drowned under the sea but rich in something desperately wanted by the Ceians and others. It is both the opposite of the historical Egypt and yet still evocative of it. Likewise Ceio, the empire-planet-city that mirrors Rome is depicted as both a modern, technological and concrete place, while also bringing to mind much of what it draws on. Where Rome conquered peoples, cities and countries, Ceio talks of systems and arms of the galaxy. That being said, aside from what is needed for the political storyline, which is absolutely the focus, the worldbuilding is very light touch, even for space opera. We have no knowledge of how the ships work, how travel between planets or systems functions. The only hint we get as to the complexity of an interstellar empire at all is an amusing aside about aligning calendars between worlds with different orbits and how this relates to annual taxation. Like the use of history, the world building exists purely to serve the plot, and where it does so, it does so well - landscapes particularly are evocatively described and detailed, and especially the weather while characters experience it - but it is not a story in the least concerned with the nitty gritty of creating a realistic technological backdrop for space travel. But it never feels implausibly sparse. It's not so much an absence as a lack of interest - it never affects the characters nor is relevant to their problems, so it never comes up. And because we're so deeply entwined in their perspectives for the story, this feels far more natural than trying to wedge in some understanding of wormhole mechanics might be. They exist in the world, it works, why would they need to explore or explain it in those terms? Especially Altagracia, as a person and from a people whose focus is far more directed to the past than the present. Despite being over 500 pages, this lends a feeling of economy that balances out the occasional deviation into (beautiful) descriptive passages, and allows the story not to overbalance itself by looking outside of its core concerns.

All in all, it's an incredibly thoughtfully told story, both in terms of its use of historical material and in how its characters approach the events of the novel and each other. There is a distinct voice for every character, their cultures are well-drawn and considered, and there is a playfulness with the source material and the plot itself underlying everything that occasionally warrants a laugh. It is witty and clever and beautifully told, with prose that manages to be quietly lovely when you pause to examine it without it every dragging attention away from what it's telling, and that leaves you with a lot of lingering thoughts about people and their legacies. It is a phenomenally accomplished book, and one of the best things I've read in a crowded field this year.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 Marc Antony as the swaggeringest, fightiest queer woman is a joy and a delight

Penalties: none

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Reference:  Emery Robin, The Stars Undying [Orbit, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea