Space opera is one of my favourite things. It’s true that I have a lot of favourite things, particularly with regard to science fiction and fantasy, but space opera was my first introduction to the genre and I suspect I’ll always have a soft spot for it. Space opera affords a potentially vast scope to a story, and its genre landscape—a variety of planets, stellar bodies, space ships, competing factions—is one with great potential for wonder and fascination.
The Stars Now Unclaimed is Drew Williams’ debut novel, a tightly character-focused space opera novel set in a universe where an event known as “the pulse” has resulted in remarkable effects in the years since it happened. The pulse affected inhabited planets randomly, but in many cases it changed local conditions (for reasons best left at “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) to make higher levels of technology impossible. The more advanced the tech, the faster it burns out: some planets have been reduced to a level where horses and carts are the only reasonable form of transport, while others were hardly affected at all.
Before the pulse, the entire galaxy was at war. Factions—”sects”—fought with planet-killing weapons, with ordnance capable of destroying entirely solar systems. The pulse has made such weapons harder to manufacture and deploy, but it hasn’t brought peace.
We learn the name of the narrator of The Stars Now Unclaimed quite late in the narrative, but we learn what drives her early. Jane is a soldier, and an extraordinarily effective one. She remembers the sect wars, and knows more than the general person about the pulse. We meet her as she drops onto a pulse-affected planet in search of a child—more of a teenager—who has special powers. A handful of children born after the pulse have developed abilities hitherto unknown in the galaxy, and Jane’s sect—the Justified and the Repentant—are searching for them to educate them, to keep them safe, and also to study them and try to understand the effects of the pulse better.
The Justified aren’t the only ones who want to get their hands on these children, though. The Pax are a fascist sect. Their creed is peace through strength—overwhelming strength. They believe the weak should submit to the strong, and see strength other than theirs as a challenge. They brainwash and manipulate people en masse into becoming their cannon fodder. Young people with special powers? Potential weapons in their arsenal. Weapons they really want, because there’s no way to guard against those powers.
Jane finds the kid she’s looking for minutes before the Pax do. Extracting them both from the middle of a warzone is a challenge, and once Jane and the kid, Esa, accompanied by a Barious (a member of a race of machine intelligences) known as the Preacher, make it back to Jane’s ship, they find more problems waiting in space. The Pax are throwing more ships than they should have to spare after Esa, and Jane has to detour to collect a badly-injured Justified agent—a detour that means she needs to look for assistance from a man exiled from the Justified as a traitor.
Because the Pax know where the Justified live—a location long kept secret for the Justified’s protection—and they know that the Justified had more to do with the pulse than the Justified have ever publicly admitted. The Pax mean to conquer the Justified, and once that’s done, continue on to conquer the rest of the universe. Jane, Esa, and the Preacher are arriving days before a war that the Justified have a very small chance of surviving—but they don’t turn away from the fight.
The Stars Now Unclaimed uses short, sharp chapters, its style reminiscent of a thriller. This works very effectively, because the action leaps forward: tense and well-paced, with just enough breathing room that the narrative never feels forced or overstuffed. The characterisation is solid, sometimes intense, definitely believable. Jane is a compelling character, and Esa—well, Esa’s very much a teenager, and an engaging one at that. Williams builds the stakes all the way to an explosive climax and a very satisfying conclusion.
I’m a little disappointed that it’s possible to read all the characters as straight, and also a little disappointed that Williams doesn’t show us a wider range of cultures, because space opera has great potential for playfulness and inventiveness around culture and norms. But this is a strikingly entertaining debut novel, an enjoyable space opera with military flair. I look forward to seeing more of Williams’ work in the years to come.
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, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. 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, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.