Is there any period in life more difficult to navigate than adolescence? Worrying about school, figuring out which hottie you want to smooch, and finding new ways to act rebellious can be exhausting. Then there’s the aliens. The screaming stars. The mysterious AI, and your cytonic powers of understanding faster-than-light radio signals. It’s enough to terrify even the strongest of souls. What’s a girl got to do to catch a break? Lucky for us readers, we get to continue Spensa’s story and find out.
In the first volume of Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward series, we explored Spensa’s metamorphosis from an angry, defiant teen into a determined leader who is just starting to learn what kind of person she really is. In the excellent sequel Starsight, Spensa is pushed far out of her comfort zone (if she ever really had one to begin with) and is forced into facing what she fears most. On a surface level, she examines a societal hierarchy that is determined to keep ‘lesser races,’ such as humans, under government control. She must now face new challenges against horrifying demons—universe-swallowing “delvers”—not only in thrilling space battles, but in metaphysical and symbolic trials as well. Along the way, Spensa must covertly navigate through a corrupt shadow government that rules through secrecy and extortion, all while her cytonic powers start to grow. It’s a lot to handle, especially when she’s cut off from everyone she’s ever known.
In Skyward, Sanderson explored the nature of identity, both human and artificial. He ups the ante in Starsight to unprecedented levels by introducing a plethora of alien races for Spensa to contend with. When she’s not fighting to save her life and the entire human race, she has her back against the wall trying to determine who she’s able to trust. Can it be an invisible, gaseous cloud that can only be detected by smell? Or an unborn, “trial” baby that is a temporary amalgam of two parents’ bodies and their combined traits? Sanderson takes full advantage of the universe as his sandbox in creating unique and wonderful creatures, rules, ways of life, and varying characteristics and communications. But is it possible that we all might share some of the same traits and tendencies, no matter what we look like, what our social status is, or where we come from?
It takes little effort to understand that Starsight is an intense ride with equal measures of thrilling action and emotional resonance. Once again, he knocks it out of the park; it’s another Grand Slamderson. Every new project he tackles, his storytelling somehow seems to get better and better. His brain belongs in a museum. It’s truly a gift that we get to experience so many stories from such a prolific writer. Don’t be put off by the YA label. Everyone should join Spensa on her journey, and strap in tight. There’s many more light years of space mileage to cover yet.
Adam Weller, 9.2/10
In late-2018 I was blown away by the unlooked-for Skyward by Brandon Sanderson, a book I thought was “possibly the most captivating, inspirational, and aspirational book that Brandon Sanderson has ever written” and which “captivated me unlike any other book has in the past decade.”
Unsurprisingly, then, when I discovered the publication of Starsight, sequel to Skyward, had mysteriously passed me by, I raced to acquire a copy.
Sequels can be tricky business for the best authors – even Brandon Sanderson. While his The Final Empire trilogy might not see any particular decline in quality, some of his other series have at times fallen victim to the difficulty of maintaining the impossibly high standards and quality, as well as the breath-taking imagination that comes when Sanderson unleashes a new series. Considering, however, that I wrote of Skyward “It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that excited me as much as Sanderson’s The Final Empire,” it makes sense to query whether Starsight lives up to both the brilliance of its predecessor, but also the series I feel it most resembles – if not in specifics, at least in tone and imagination and thrill.
Thankfully, not only does Starsight live up to the heights and aspirational brilliance of Skyward, in some respects it exceeds them.
Sanderson picks up the in Starsight story several months after the conclusion of Skyward and quickly lets us see that events have progressed, characters have matured, relationships solidified, and the dangers above have not lessened. However, with very little warning, the setting changes and we are flung across space, with only Spensa, M-Bot, and Doomslug for company. The initial feelings of betrayal for leaving behind recently-beloved characters are quickly allayed, however, and we are introduced not only to new characters and surroundings and dangers, but Sanderson continues to work out Spensa’s maturation by means of continually placing her in situations where her natural tendencies must give way to responsibility, caution, respect, and naivety.
The themes of individual identity, loss, and growth which were central in Skyward are not replaced, but morph and mature in themselves, at the same time that we see Spensa mature. And while some of Sanderson’s attempts to set up Spensa’s preconceived notions –conveniently set up so that they can inevitably be knocked down – are a little ham-handed, the more kind-hearted reviewer may simply see this as an expression of Spensa’s genuine and artless innocence. Sanderson continues to explore significant themes through the lens of this wonderful main character, who must suffer the shattering of those preconceived notions, look past the black and white in society and acknowledge the grey, and contend with racial hatreds and political intrigue which not-so-subtly challenges not only Spensa, but the reader.
Starsight’s story is, of course, brilliant. The larger mysteries keep you guessing right up until the end – when even if you think you’ve worked out the general idea, the specifics still keep your on your toes – and the inter-relational dynamics at work continue to evolve and reveal greater substrates of mystery and implications.
Brandon Sanderson is always held up as the gold star of fantasy world building, and even though he has transferred his skills to the stars, he is no less apt at developing a unique and quantifiably entrancing universe with endless queries to satisfy the most die-hard science fiction fan. And yet his fantasy skills are still at play, the intricacies and plots and machinations so common in his fantasy literature are as relevant here, the mysteries just as intertwined with greater revelations we cannot yet comprehend, let alone pretend to anticipate. Two of these main fantastical storylines have fallen off the proverbial literary cliff face, leaving us hanging awaiting the release of books 3 and 4 which are tentatively expected in 2021 and 2022.
In the end, then, Brandon Sanderson did not simply return “to his very best with … Skyward” (as I wrote in 2018) for a brief stay, but has remained, building on his best to bring us new bests that rival and contend with the high points of his already impressive career. Starsight thrums with raw energy, crackles with electric excitement, and never lets the reader cruise through a thrilling storyline without thinking. Brandon Sanderson was already one of the greatest fantasy authors, and while fans of hard, operatic science fiction may not agree, Sanderson now makes a case for being, if not one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, at least one of the greats of this new century. Do not sleep on Skyward and Starsight. Even if you think you aren’t a science fiction fan, don’t let that stop you from reading Brandon Sanderson’s take on the genre, because I’ll all but guarantee you’ll love it.
Joshua S Hill. 10/10
The sequel to 2018's Skyward does not disappoint. Starsight brings back everything I loved about the first book, adds in a veritable menagerie of alien species, and ratchets up the tension as we watch Spensa navigate new challenges and see her grow as a result. Starsight is a wonderful character-driven sci-fi with plenty of pulse-pounding action and political intrigue. There is a lot crammed into this book, but the word that best describes it might be comparatively simple: fun.
Starsight begins several months after Skyward left off, and we quickly become reacquainted with Spensa, M-Bot, and the rest of the crew. But it doesn't take long until Spensa is off on new, tension-filled adventures. There's so much that I enjoyed in this one that it's hard to pick out specific elements to talk about. Spensa's character arc is wonderful, and we get to see her coming out of her shell more. If Spensa in the first novel was a warrior, Spensa in this one is learning to be a diplomat, a spy, and - in some ways - a human being. The way her journey is a foil for the way alien species perceive humanity and the accuracy and inaccuracies of that perception is very well done. One of my favorite characters in this series is M-bot, Spensa's sentient starfighter. I'm a sucker for the snarky, sentient spaceship trope and M-bot delivers on that front. I'm pretty sure there are some HK-47 Easter eggs that Brandon has dropped in there for us, and I love it. M-bot also has some intriguing character development in this novel, but unlike Spensa's, we're very much left waiting for the third book to see the resolution of that arc. Sanderson has managed to write a science fiction novel that still has a magic system, and I love him for it. The cytonics and their abilities are fascinating and I can't wait to learn more in the future. Make no mistake, though, there are plenty of reveals in this book. In true Sanderson fashion the reveals come fast and furious in the final third of the book as things rush to their conclusion. The fact that said conclusion involves the science fiction version of hanging off a cliff doesn't lessen it's impact or the reader's satisfaction in any way. For those who enjoy space-going, character-driven science fiction with telepathic elements and plenty of space tactics, this is one for you. I need more like it!
Normally this is where I'd share the weaknesses I found in the novel. In this case, those weaknesses largely take the form of things I missed. Because of the direction the story goes, we see much less of Spensa flight group from Skyward. That's fine, and we are introduced to a number of new and interesting characters, but I missed the old group a great deal. I hope we'll see more of them in the final book. I also felt like one small revelation that takes place near the end of the novel back on Spensa's world could have had more impact with a little more explanation or another viewpoint from one of those characters. It's nothing glaring or showstopping, and it might just be me wanting to see more of the old gang.
Starsight is wonderful science fiction. Sure to appeal to Sanderson fans and those looking for unique and unusual space tales, it's one I'll be recommending often.
Calvin Park, 9/10
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