Nathan’s review of The Stars Undying by Emery Robin
A debut novel, The Stars Undying retells the epic and tragic love story of Julius Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra in a futuristic, galaxy spanning empire setting. I’ll make it clear upfront – while the rest of this review seems negative, I really did enjoy this book and I’m anticipating the sequel. I just think that this book is slightly mis-marketed, which greatly impacted my initial reading experience (and might impact other readers as well).
We are first introduced to one of the two main POV characters, Gracia, who is in the midst of a civil war with her twin sister. The arrival of Ceirran, a general for the expanding empire of Ceiao and our second POV character, changes the course of history for Gracia and the entire history of her planet, Szayet. This is because Szayet has technology that both Gracia and Ceirran want – a computer chip that contains the memories of Szayet’s god. A memory chip that could make its wielder invincible. As Gracia and Ceirran start a romantic relationship, things will never be the same for them or their nations.
It’s books like this that always make me hesitate to DNF.
For the first 100 pages of The Stars Undying I was not feeling this book. I had a hard time immersing myself in the world that Emery Robin was creating, and I didn’t connect with any of the characters, their plights, or their motivations. This was partially because the learning curve of this novel was so high. The first paragraph of the book alone introduces over a dozen new words and concepts without explaining any of them. Robin’s worlds, cultures, and mythologies are intricate and in depth; this level of complexity and nuance (mostly) pays off later in the book, but it can make for a quite the slog as you begin reading the novel.
The second major issue is that some of the conflicts in the early going of the book are not well-written or plotted. The most egregious of these is the civil war between Gracia, and her twin sister. This is supposed to be a major global and military event, but it never actually feels that way to the reader. The civil war comes and goes with surprisingly little action or fanfare, but then later the characters refer back to it as some grand achievement.
The really leads to one of the problem that pervades the entire book (even after the book immensely improves), and that is the issue of scale. Fans (or haters) of Arkady’s Martine’s A Memory Called Empire will know exactly what I am talking about here; how you responded that book may be a very good indicator of how you will like/dislike The Stars of Undying. On one hand this book promises to be an epic space opera. There are intergalactic empires at war, innumerable inhabited planets, political intrigue, and more. However, the book itself is surprisingly intimate. Much of the page count are simply conversations between our two main POV characters, Gracia and Ceirran, with a few other named characters thrown into the mix. Action is sparsely sprinkled throughout, and the only sense we get of the wider galaxy are in the character’s conversations.
Whether this will work for you or not depends on what you like to get out of your space opera. The term “space opera” (which is used in Orbit’s marketing, not me forcing a subgenre label of the book) often means a large story with expansive characters. While not a perfect definition, I often like to think of it as “epic fantasy in space”. This book is not that. Instead, this book is an exploration of its two major characters (plus one non-POV character, Anita) and how both their personal and political lives get swept up in the grandeur of their emotions and positions. This is a book about the power of individuals to collapse governments, transform ideologies, and rethread the very fabric of societies because of their individual desires. And the emphasis here really is on individuals. This book is not an epic space thriller, but an examination of how just a few individuals can crash into one another and change the course of history. If you walk into it expecting a more “traditional” space opera, you may be disappointed.
The other element of the book that will greatly color your perspective on the book is how much you like Gracia and Ceirran, and how much time you really want to spend with them. On one hand, I never bought their romance. They fall for each other almost instantly; Emery Robin expects the reader to believe that this is an epic love story that crosses galaxes, and I never quite got that. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the cerebral and verbal sparring between the two POV characters. Robin did a really nice job of setting up Gracia and Ceirran as intellectual equals, and their ruminations and debates on the nature of politics, history, and religion were consistently engaging. And maybe this is what kept me from fully falling in love with this story. Maybe this book was too much about things and not enough of things. All of the characters, plot, and setting were held just a bit too much out of arm’s reach. I could see how many readers wouldn’t be engaged by this, and is probably why it took me so long to warm up to this book.
But warm up to it I eventually did! Robin just struggled with the run-up to getting to the story she actually wanted to tell, and once you get past the plate-setting things immensely improve. Once my expectations were managed, I couldn’t put the book down and the politics and relationships really started heating up. Anyone who knows the backstory of Cleopatra, Ceasar, and Antony knows that this is going to be a tragic story, and I greatly anticipated the shoe to drop (and drop it does). Once I managed my expectations, I was fully on board with the political machinations, the melodrama, and the tight ways in which the main characters kept circling with one another, exiting and entering each other’s orbits. I really enjoyed how small changes in how the characters felt about one another lead to massive swings the larger world Robin was building.
Before ending this review, I want to address one other marketing quibble I had. Not only is this book advertised as a “space opera” (which, as I said above is debatable), but it is also pitched as a queer space opera. This is technically true; this is a queer norm universe where many characters are in queer relationships that are not challenged nor questioned. And yes, in this book “Antony” is queer, building up to a queer Antony/Cleopatra moment. However, if you are looking for a book with a queer couple at its center, you may be disappointed. The core relationship here is heterosexual, so just make sure that you manage your expectations going in, and it does end in a way that the rest of the series will be more queer-forward.
While I seemed to focus on what didn’t work for me in this review, I still really enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction with a world epic in scope, but that is also intimately connected with its core characters. I just think that this book is a great case study and warning in mis-marketing a book and about managing reader expectations. I could only imagine that I would have enjoyed this book a lot more in the beginning if my expectations were better set on what this book actually was.
Concluding Thoughts: An intimate queer-ish retelling of Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra, The Stars Undying sets up a series of heightened politics, emotions, and technology. Fans of historical retellings will really enjoy this one, as long as you know going in that the book isn’t quite as queer or epic as the marketing leads to believe. A wonderful examination of theories related to politics and power, and the individuals who change the course of history because of their personal desires.