Weird Space Opera’s Promising First Act: Starfire: A Red Peace by Spencer Ellsworth

Is Starfire: A Red Peace a weird space opera? Hell, yes. Is it good?

I couldn’t put it down, which is one answer to that question.

Starfire: A Red Peace starts in about as much medias res as anything I’ve ever read. A Resistance against a corrupt Empire has just succeeded. Its leader was John Starfire, and he led an army of human-Jorian “crosses”—part human, able to use the advanced technology of the long-gone pure Jorians by virtue of their DNA, and used as slaves and cannon-fodder by the Empire—to victory. Now, though, Resistance has turned into “consolidation,” and all full humans are marked for death.

Jaqi, an eighteen-year-old “cross” who’s been working as a navigator among aliens, finds herself in some trouble on a habitat in the region of space known as the “wild worlds.” Having survived a con by the skin of her teeth, and hungry for real food, she stumbles across three human children in hiding. These children are maybe the most wanted people in the galaxy. Not only are they human, but they’re carrying information that John Starfire wants to have.

Jaqi wants a normal life. Or whatever she can get that might pass for a normal life. But she’s not willing to leave the kids to die, either, and so—accompanied by a three-horned Zarra called Zaragathora—she tries to get the children to some kind of safety. Unfortunately, pursuit is close, and Jaqi keeps bouncing from the frying pan ever closer to the fire.

The narrative is recounted in the first person, with all the urgency of the present tense. Jaqi’s viewpoint is only half the story. The other half belongs to Araskar, a “cross” in the Resistance’s Vanguard. Araskar is five years out of the vats where he was made, and has been at war for all that time. He’s a senior officer, a survivor, a man with a conscience and a man with a drug problem. He doesn’t want to keep fighting: the war’s over, isn’t it? But he follows orders, despite his growing certainty that the ongoing consolidation is a project of genocide, and his growing unease with this certainty. His drug addiction complicates his feelings, and so does his relationship with Starfire’s daughter Rashiya, who used to be his subordinate and now is a special operations type who outranks him.

Araskar is part of the pursuit of Jaqi and the kids. His growing disillusionment makes him easy to sympathise with—especially when he sees most everyone he ever cared about die.

Starfire: A Red Peace is a tight, tense little book. And it has some weird and engaging worldbuilding. This is a galaxy with a Dark Zone filled with things called Shir that eat worlds and stars, where instead of fighter pilots, Starfire’s Vanguard use the shells of dead creatures from a world without atmosphere, and where the “crosses” use soulswords that not only kill people, but suck out their memories and allow the soulswords’ wielders to know what these memories contain. Swords! Duels! Stabbing! And extremely modified people called “Suits” who can survive vacuum. Some of this stuff is batshit. All of it is cool.

Ellsworth gives each of his protagonists compelling, individual voices. I’m not particularly fond of directly representing dialect variation in the text, such as “en’t” here for “isn’t” or “aren’t.” But here it works, alongside Ellsworth’s use of invented jargon, used so consistently and in such a measured way that it seems natural.

The depth and variety of Ellsworth’s world feels a little overwhelming in a short space. It reminds me, in certain deliberate ways, of a darker, weirder, more lower-class Star Wars, with elements of Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker in the tone. (I might compare it to Becky Chambers’ work, but it isn’t nearly as kind.)

Starfire: A Red Peace is really good. It’s fast, it’s entertaining, and it works. It’s also only the opening installment in a longer story, and I’m rather looking forward to seeing what comes next. I’ve always had a soft spot for space opera—and it’s really satisfying when the space opera is this much fun.

Starfire: A Red Peace is available now from Tor.com Publishing.
Read an excerpt here.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign

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