The Stars are Legion, recently released from Saga Press, is a stand-alone novel from the same woman who brought us The Bel Dame Apocrypha and The Geek Feminist Revolution. Set in a scattered belt of dying world-ships referred to as the Legion by the people who have access to the surfaces of the world, the novel mixes the trappings of quest narratives and space opera. Zan, our protagonist, awakes injured and with no memories—finding herself in the control of a group of women who claim to be her family, but seem to treat her more like a conscript.
She is told she must gain control of the Mokshi, a travelling world-ship that repels all invaders, to save the world of her so-called family. However, other ruling families in the Legion are also seeking to gain control of it and therefore bring salvage and life to their own decaying homes. Through a sprawling set of intrigues, Zan must discover her own past and determine the path to a future that she can survive.
The first thing of note is that, for readers who are familiar with the Bel Dame Apocrypha, there are several familiar themes present here: organic technologies everywhere, a lot of gruesome physicality, a concentration on the womb as a form of tech and birthing as something equal parts horror and creation, plus aggressive poorly-adjusted female leads. The world-ships are a multilayered and each level has a different society, often barely in contact with the levels nearest it; some of the levels seem entirely toxic or deadly.
More important, though, is that these separate worlds are all organic creatures. They’re “technology,” but they’re birthed by special women whose pregnancies deliver worlds as opposed to “cogs” or monsters or other people. The worlds themselves them influence the women on them to parthenogenic births that fit the needs of the ship (or so the novel implies). Hurley leaves a great deal of the science and magic of the worlds in the Legion up for debate between the women of the different layers; the novel doesn’t explain itself much to the reader, just expects us to follow along and make our own conclusions.
The only thing that’s sure is that these worlds are populated entirely by women.
It makes you realize, to be honest, how much science fiction there is that stars only men—and how much more notable this is, in contrast. Pleasingly enough, there’s no explanation offered or mention tendered of a different option of physical embodiment and therefore there’s more or less zero concept of “gender.” It isn’t that men are gone. There’s just no such thing as them in the first place. People might act or perform differently from culture to culture and person to person, but gender doesn’t seem to exist at all. It’s remarkably refreshing. And though in the context of the world, without gender there’s no real sense of queerness… as a reader, it’s also notable that these women are all, in our terms, queer. That’s refreshing too: they fall in love and fuck and break up and so forth, all within their own social structures and with each other.
This novel also makes a point about the suitability of women as generals and conquerors and warriors and political wives and mothers and lovers. All of the roles of a fantastical space opera are here, including a quest where more and more people of different faiths and types are picked up along the way and forced into a unit. However, these women are more than enough to occupy all of those spaces. From a critical standpoint I’d like to tip my hat to Hurley for the argument this book is making in the genre of science fiction, and for how seamlessly it does so.
As for the plot itself, I’m more lukewarm. I was most intrigued by the slow journey Zan takes up the levels of the world, rediscovering her memory; I was less intrigued by the fact that the characters are so damn overwrought about her tragic past and how she’d go mad if she remembered too soon. Jayd’s chapters in particular began to induce some eye-rolling as she constantly observes how she’s a villain and how she did something terrible and so on and so forth. That turns out to be one hundred percent true, but the constant dangling of a giant secret in front of the reader without any movement on uncovering it for a huge portion of the novel just gets repetitive.
The last half of The Stars are Legion held my rapt attention, though. Once Zan is traveling with Das Muni, finding parts of herself and other companions as she goes, there’s a real sense of evolution—of the stakes of the adventure. The first half is considerably slower, more full of neat concepts without as much of a sense of progress. The living ships and the tradable wombs and weird pregnancies all catch the attention, but aren’t enough to sustain it on their own, particular for a reader who has already seen all of those tricks in Hurley’s arsenal before. The glossy shock-factor doesn’t quite work the fourth time around.
So it’s not the tightest construction I’ve ever seen, but it does work, and once it begins to coalesce it’s got solid pacing and strong narrative tension. The ending also works for me. I was thoroughly pleased that Zan informs Jayd that their toxic relationship has put her through too much to continue, and that while their worlds would continue and they’d know each other, their romantic entanglement was through. Zan even considers Sabita as a potential romantic partner for herself and pictures Jayd hooking up with an engineer or some such.
It’s good to read an ending where our protagonists achieve their goals and save the world, or begin to try to at least—but also don’t end up together, because frankly it would be awful for Zan to be with someone who had treated her as abusively as Jayd, even if it was for “the greater good.” It’s mature and responsible and somehow a great relief as a reader. Communication and interpersonal relationships are the things that save the worlds from greed and unnecessary violence, but they can’t solve everything, and I appreciate a story that acknowledges they’re just steps in the right direction.
The Stars are Legion is a good book, and from an objective standpoint considering its commentary on the genre, a better space opera. It’s weird and gross and doesn’t pull its punches; it’s also full of women (though without a sense of gender behind that designation), all of whom are different people with different tastes, motivations, and ethical frameworks. Hurley isn’t treading ground that’s too different from her previous work, but it’s an aesthetic that remains interesting and works well for this particular story.
The Stars are Legion is available now from Saga Press.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.