Going Out With a Boom: Starfire: Memory’s Blade by Spencer Ellsworth

Last summer’s Starfire: A Red Peace opened Spencer Ellsworth’s debut space opera trilogy: a peculiar, entertaining, weird, and at times brutal story set in a far-future empire whose ruling class has just been overthrown by an insurgency headed by one of their class of cloned slave-soldiers, John Starfire, who immediately gave an order to kill all non-Jorian (slave-soldier class) humans.

The story continued in last winter’s Starfire: Shadow Sun Seven, in which a plucky band of unlikely heroes—including reluctant “saint” Jaqi, a lower-class space drifter; ex-rebellion officer (and cloned slave-soldier) Araskar; and human teenager Kalia—conducted a prison break on a mining work camp based inside the carcass of a giant decaying space-insect, and discovered even more Terrible Truths than in A Red Peace.

Now Starfire: Memory’s Blade completes the trilogy. Jaqi faces John Starfire on an untouched planet at the heart of the Dark Zone, the region of space destroyed by the planet-eating Shir. Araskar faces the mother of the lover he killed in the heart of John Starfire’s fleet, as the Shir take advantage of the offer John Starfire made them to break out of the Dark Zone and attack several more star systems at once. Starfire’s fleet is divided between those who want to attack the Shir and those who want to obey Starfire’s inexplicable order to let the Shir breed.

Meanwhile, Jaqi, while trying to avoid or outwit John Starfire in their confrontation, learns the truth about the origins of the Jorians and of the Shir. It’s not what she thought. It’s not what anyone thought. Meanwhile, Kalia faces betrayal from an ally and finds that violence comes surprisingly easy—and she has a whole lot of anger and fear to work out.

Memory’s Blade is a fast, punchy story that packs an awful lot of boom into a relatively small space. It wraps up the whole Starfire storyline in a series of surprising revelations, startling choices, and complicated emotions.

But like its predecessors in this trilogy, I can’t help feeling that Memory’s Blade takes a bit too much of a breakneck approach to pacing. It’s too fast, so that many of the story elements never have room to breathe. Revelations come hard on the heels of revelations, but their emotional impact is lost in the frenetic ballet of incidents and points of view. Much of the strength and significance of certain character choices—certain incidents, certain decisions and sudden reveals—is diminished because it seldom feels as though those choices and incidents come together smoothly. The reader doesn’t have the time to process the ramifications of one, to adjust to the change in what they know and how they see the world of the story (or the story itself), before the next comes along.

In the tragedies of early modern England—like Shakespeare’s popular plays—high tension and high emotion occasionally cut to a pair of fools bumbling around on stage. The use of what artists refer to as negative space is what allows the art itself to have that much more impact, allowing the eye a place to rest. Starfire: Memory’s Blade, like the trilogy itself, doesn’t leave much room for negative space, and suffers from its surfeit of intensity in consequence.

But overall, Memory’s Blade is a fun, entertaining conclusion to an interesting trilogy. I look forward to seeing Ellsworth develop in his future work.

Starfire: Memory’s Blade is available now from Tor.com Publishing.

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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