Hi all, this review will be a FULL SPOILER review of Starsight. There are full book spoilers here, so if you haven’t finished reading the book, you may want to turn back. Unless you don’t care about spoilers whatsoever, then by all means, continue on!
This review is actually two reviews. The first is by Greywatch, who liked the book, and the second is by Overlord Jebus, who didn’t. Please enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments!
I thought for a long time what I could title this review of Starsight. “First Impressions Are Not Trustworthy” perhaps, or “Understanding Other People is Difficult.” How about “Other People Are Delver Mazes, or: Navigating Our Way Through the Illusion That We Are Different.”
But then I realized how pretentious it is to title a review, so let’s skip that entirely.
One book can go anywhere; there are several different ways to interpret any book. But when you have at least two in a row, you can pick out the commonalities. When we look at the throughline between Skyward and Starsight, what we have is a series focused on a young woman whose core trait is her desire to connect with other people.
One of the things that jumped out to me in Skyward was how relatively easily Spensa was able to let go of her (justified and legitimate) anger to try and see things from the perspective of other people. As someone who identifies with Spensa’s anger and knows how easily it is to stoke the fire of rage when you know that you’re right, how easily anger consumes everything, how nothing else matters except defeating the object of your righteous anger - her ability to put her anger down for the sake of starting trying to have a relationship with other people is nothing short of inspiring. Spensa was my hero at the end of Skyward, and it’s to my joy that she continued to grow along this path in Starsight.
This book takes a tonal shift from Skyward, in that it’s no longer a story about a class of young people training to become fighter pilots. Instead, the book makes it clear very soon that the people of Detritus are now looking beyond their dreary prison planet to the universe beyond. The ancient creatures Spensa knows as the eyes are found out to be called delvers, and the people on Detritus learned it was a delver that destroyed the world before. They need to find out more. Due to her cytonic abilities and singular connection with M-Bot, who so happens to be specially developed for stealth infiltration missions and traversing long distances in space, Spensa is not the ideal candidate to spy on the alien society beyond, but she is the only one who can. Due to the sudden appearance of a sympathetic alien, Alanik of the UrDail, Spensa is given the tools to do this sooner than later.
Spensa is suddenly pushed into the role of spy and infiltrator, landing on Starsight, a space station where people from the dominant alien society live, called the Superiority. The tension sets in as we watch Spensa’s fumbling attempts to blend in and understand the internal politics of the Superiority, always feeling on the cusp of giving herself away.
Here is where Spensa’s character arc really shines. We know from Skyward that Spensa is not a particularly politic young woman, not given to speaking softly, nor deftly dissecting nuances to see through to the truth. She knows that she is not suited for the work of being a spy, nor has she been trained for it. In addition to this, humanity’s place in the universe is extremely precarious. They’re being kept on Detritus because the other aliens find them too violent and aggressive to be able to be a part of their society. At the end of Skyward, when I was thinking about humanity reaching out to the rest of the universe to try and persuade the aliens that they weren’t all violent monsters, I wouldn’t have picked Spensa for the job. Spensa, full of anger and a fighting spirit? A young angry woman who idolizes and seeks to emulate ancient Earth warriors can’t be the best example of a human to the Superiority.
Also a big change from Skyward is the absence of the people from Detritus, even Skyward Flight. When a huge new set of alien characters are introduced as part of the main cast instead of anyone from the cast of the original book, one wonders what the purpose will be. I had the sense going into Starsight that it was going to involve Spensa going to the aliens’ society and learning about them, so obviously the people she’s learning about must be aliens. But the story took a different direction with the people Spensa meets in this book than I was expecting, and the aliens are part of the theme of Spensa’s story in a way I thought was really interesting and meaningful.
Almost all of them have some kind of echo or mirror of Spensa’s main quest. Where earnest and direct Spensa is not totally conscious of her real struggle, or able to completely articulate the big questions to herself, the people around her give us the words to understand what’s going on in this book. The essential questions are not something only Spensa is trying to figure out, but so is M-Bot, the dione Morriumur, the traumatized human Brade, and even the delver who appears at the end.
It’s a terrible thing to have your personhood denied to you, to be put in the position that you need to prove to others that you deserve to live. This is a fraught issue that Starsight hammers in relentlessly; first with Spensa’s quest to find a way to preserve the humans in Detritus, then developing with every relationship she makes on Starsight. The further this book went on, the more I was convinced that no one other than Spensa could have fully carried the questions that this book raised.
The reason this worked so perfectly for me is Spensa’s character arc in Skyward. She has an outward projection of violence and aggression, but Spensa truly and deeply wants to be friends with other people. She’s hurt when other people don’t like her, and she had become used to the expectation that everyone was going to dislike her. She is ultimately willing to let go of things that she thought were so precious to her for the goal of saving other people. She tries to reach out to Morningtide, even after her mistaken first impression that Morningtide was being rude to her. She tries to reach out to Hurl, even when Hurl is cruel to her. She tries to reach out to Nedd, even when he hates her for saving his life instead of saving his brothers. She tries to make things right with Jorgen even when they haven’t been good to each other; they’re perhaps the most perfect example in Skyward of two people who have legitimate reasons to dislike each other but still giving the other person a chance. Spensa has every reason to stop trying, but despite what other people think of her or how they treat her, she gives it attempt after attempt.
In hindsight, I feel I should have realized sooner how perfect this makes Spensa for a mission where she’s going to come into contact with aliens who are predisposed to think badly of humans just for being humans. Spensa’s fierce nature isn’t a weakness; we instead get the joy of watching her genuinely caring about the aliens she meets and trying to understand them through her initial misunderstandings. (With a couple of exceptions--poor Mrs. Chamwit! Living on the bottom rung of an authoritarian society like Detritus didn’t really give Spensa the tools to comprehend that people might really have good intentions.)
Spensa’s best trait is her quick willingness to admit that she was wrong about someone. She isn’t stubborn or proud about her mistakes in misunderstanding people--the possibility of connecting with them is so much more important to her. The best moment in Starsight that highlights this is Spensa’s reevaluation of Cuna and their smile; when Spensa realizes that Cuna is the only one who’s trying to do her this kindness, even though Cuna is doing it badly, it overcomes Spensa’s automatic fear she has ingrained in her that everyone has bad intentions. This is something she’s struggled with since the beginning of the first book, and it’s understandable that her fear that everyone dislikes her hasn’t disappeared. But Spensa’s consistency in saying “maybe I was wrong about this person” and giving it another shot is truly heroic.
This is a powerful theme that is threaded through every plot point in the book, all the way through to the final confrontation with the delver, one of the ancient eldritch creatures who simply destroy civilizations who use too much cytonics or wireless communications. A younger, less mature Spensa might have been unable to look past her own fear and lack of understanding. But the Spensa at the end of Starsight has had a lot to consider. She’s seen M-Bot’s and Morriumur’s desire to become fully realized people, but are being denied; others’ desire to become full members of the Superiority with the rights to participate in society, but are being denied; Brade who has already been denied this right to personhood in such a traumatizing way that she’s not even trying anymore.
What Spensa and much of our cast has been chewing on in this story is whether they deserve to exist. When Spensa enters the white room of the delver, this question is put to the final test. When I first read this scene, I didn’t understand the point of it. The delvers and the Superiority felt like separate obstacles to the humans’ goals, just happening to share space in the narrative. One is some massive unknowable horrid creature that destroys everything it sees, completely unstoppable. The other side seems mundane, political drama that seems petty in comparison. But the delver does something interesting. The delver answers the question.
Circumstances align so that Spensa is able to enter the heart of the delver that expresses itself as a white room, with so many events working in favour for this to happen that you wonder if anyone has ever actually managed to touch the mind of a delver before. The mind of the delver is truly alien, not understanding Spensa whatsoever. In response to this hostile being, Spensa is the one who has to reach out. She does her best work in looking past her first impressions to try and understand the perspective of the being she’s now communing with. She’s had a lot of practice at this now! When she communicates with the delver in the only way she can, the delver understands. It not only understands, it immediately and clearly communicates back to agree with her that they are all people, and people deserve to live.
This isn’t the response I was initially expecting from a delver, given the information we had up until this point, but when looking at Starsight as a whole, there is no more solid confirmation on what the book is trying to say. Spensa doesn’t get to win with everyone, of course, otherwise there would be no story. Winzik refuses to see the personhood of his enemies, or if he does, he doesn’t care. But for Spensa’s attempts, she has a lot of successes. Her persistent determination to keep trying to make connections with other people speaks to her unspoken belief that everyone is worthy of being treated like a full and complete person. It seems a clear followthrough from how Spensa was treated growing up on Detritus to how she seems so determined not to do the same to others, despite her natural predisposition to be suspicious.
Starsight explored a lot of things I didn’t think this series would cover, but it was presented so well. This is an incredibly strong novel that puts its hero’s ethics on the stage of the universe, and Spensa is well worth showing off. She’s been a wonderful character to explore so far, and if this is what we’ve gotten from her across two books, I’m so excited to see what’s next for her. That Spensa is so earnest and forthright turned out to be a great strength. She’s not the person anyone would have chosen to represent humanity, but it’s her ability and willingness to keep trying to connect with other people that saved both humans and the Superiority. Spensa risked her life to honestly reach out to Cuna and Brade and Hesho and Vapor and Morrimumur and the delver, even when she failed or didn’t have the right words. She didn’t have a great argument. She just let herself be vulnerable to them and simply asked for mercy, if not trust or friendship.
To speak personally: our world today is full of things that stoke our justified and legitimate anger. I identify with the feeling of rage and fear, surrounded by forces and people who I don’t understand and who don’t understand me. If the question that we’re being asked is whether anyone could be in this scenario and be able to try and reach out, then Starsight’s answer is yes. If the fate of all humanity depended on the ability of someone who has every reason to be angry, and to be distrustful, and to expect a hateful response but to keep trying anyway, I don’t know that I’d be capable of it. But Spensa is.
Overlord Jebus’ Review
So I wrote my original Skyward review as a non-spoilery because I really liked that book and I wanted to convince people to read it without ruining the book. I cannot say the same for Starsight.
Skyward was an easy 8/10 for me. The plot was tight, extremely well paced, full of great characters and, as I said in my review for that book, had one of the best character arcs Brandon has put to page. Unfortunately, Starsight has none of these things. I give this book a 6 out of 10 if I’m being generous.
I’m going to start with the positives because there are some elements I liked about this book. The book is competently written, as is to be expected from a man who writes like he’s running out of time. I found Vapor to be an extremely interesting character due to the general idea of the figment race and the character herself being rather mysterious in nature.
Out of the two antagonists in this book, I was far more compelled by the delvers over Winzik. The mystery of the delvers, what we learn about them and how they work are great. I can pinpoint the exact moment I started to enjoy the book as being the point the delver maze was introduced. The delvers are the only thing that kept me going as Brandon very clearly loves his cosmic horror and knows how to write it well. The sequences with them watching Spensa were great, the training in the delver maze made me really dread the inevitable encounter with them and just their general concept (Planet sized living mazes with crazy psychic powers that throw burning rocks at you and teleport you out of existence) was great.
However, something that was a serious problem for me was that we didn’t start to learn anything about them until half way through the book. The first half was almost entirely setup for getting Spensa to Starsight for the rest of the book to happen, with long expository sequences that mostly involve Spensa standing around whilst Cuna, M-Bot or Winzik explained things to her. The first action sequence, the test to get into the Superiority flight school, was completely devoid of tension for me due to no characters we knew being at risk and was not under any impression that Spensa wouldn’t get through the test.
One thing I loved about the first book were the characters and I was excited to spend more time with them, the first four chapters that were released before the book came out got me even more excited for this. However, almost immediately Spensa leaves Detritus and all those characters behind. The idea behind this was for Spensa to meet a new cast of characters, which she does, but by the time they are introduced and each had their allotted Talk With Spensa for us to get to know them better, the book is wrapping up. When Hesho died, I felt nothing.
This also adds onto a realisation I had during this book, I believe my enjoyment of Spensa’s character in Skyward was far more based on her interactions with Skyward Flight than I had realised. I did not find her or M-Bot as interesting in this book, though there are some really good moments in the second half of Spensa considering her place in the universe.
The other main antagonist for the book is Winzik and arguably the Superiority in general. I did not find Winzik nor the exploration of the Superiority to be very interesting, they felt like a very generic “Conglomerate of alien species with a pinch of authoritarianism” that wouldn’t look out of place in the backdrop of a Doctor Who episode. I will admit it may have been that Defending Elysium ruined any mystery behind their ethics that was supposed to be felt during these parts of the book but, to me, scenes where we learned things about the Superiority were just scenes where I was waiting around for more delver stuff.
But not even the delvers could redeem this book for me. This book built them up to be a huge galactic threat, an unknowable, unstoppable lovecraftian horror that was more natural disaster than living being. In the end, Spensa defeated the delver threat just by asking it nicely. My problem was not that the delvers didn’t know the beings they were killing were alive, one of the key tenets of lovecraftian horror is that our lives can be snuffed out by an unthinking horror that does not even realise we exist. My problem was with just how easily the delver was convinced. Humans fought them for hundreds of years, we know Spensa isn’t the first to enter a maze, isn’t the first to find the core and isn’t even the first to find the white room. Humans apparently had many cytonics, were none of those people that made this trip a cytonic? Did no one else think to simply ask the delver to stop? I really did not like this ending and I felt the delvers were going to be a much larger threat.
If Spensa has only defeated this one delver and the rest are still hostile to life, I would be more okay with that. However, the book does not make it clear whether the delver problem is solved for good or just this one delver.
Starsight was generally a mixed bag, with a turning point around the middle where I’d say it gets better. The Superiority never clicked with me as all that interesting, the character interactions felt formulaic (but were, at least, still good) and the most interesting element to me, the delvers, seems to have been easily defeated. Because of this, I am seriously considering not continuing the series and I cannot recommend Starsight unless you really, really, like Spensa.