REVIEW: “To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” by Christopher Paolini

I never read The Inheritance Cycle as a kid. I tried reading Eragon a few times and I made it partway through the film, but it was never something I could get into. I’m very picky about what kinds of fantasy books I like – the higher the fantasy and the more complex the world, the less likely I am to like it. Which is exactly what happened with Christopher Paolini’s beloved books. It was a classic case of it’s me not them. In that context, I was unsure what to expect when approaching To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, Paolini’s first book for adults, and his first foray into science fiction. While I love a lot of sci-fi, would I like this? Would this novel connect with me in the way I wanted his others to? In short: yes. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a masterclass in genre storytelling. Intricately plotted, stuffed with multidimensional and endearing characters, and filled with enough action to make Hollywood jealous, it is a thrill from start to finish. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: I won an advance copy of this book from BookishFirst. All reactions are my own. Additionally, there may be mild spoilers.)

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move.

As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human.

While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope . . .

To get the obvious out of the way, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a long book. I mean, it’s really long. But it manages to feel much shorter than it is. For the most part, it never feels like a moment is wasted. Paolini finds a good balance between world-building and character/plot development. It is apparent that he has created a sprawling universe in which the story is set, but he shows quite a bit of restraint in sharing that information. We learn about this world as it becomes relevant. Things may seem confusing at first, but they become clearer as the book progresses. There are plenty of exposition dumps, sure, but they are handled in ways that feel rooted in the needs of the characters and, as a result, feel natural to the reader. Plus, they’re balanced by some excellent action sequences – but more on that shortly.

So, with the novel deftly handling its world-building, you might think it has an insanely complex plot. And you’d be partially right, but not exactly. The novel’s plot could fairly easily be boiled down to something simple. Something like: Kira, a xenobiologist, accidentally discovers and pairs with an alien symbiote. Then, all hell breaks loose as she finds herself at the center of a battle she is ill-prepared for. This wouldn’t be an inaccurate synopsis, but it wouldn’t do the book justice, either. I’d liken To Sleep in a Sea of Stars to some of the best-serialized television shows. It’s a long story told over several parts. Various elements build off of those introduced early on, guiding the audience through twists and turns until eventually arriving at a resolution that takes all the threads of what’s come before and weaves them into something new.

Now, sure, that could describe any and every well-told story. And you’re right; it could. But what makes To Sleep in a Sea of Stars feel special is how well it does all of this. Paolini tells a complex story with a lot of moving Parts over the 800-odd pages. There is constantly a lot going on. There are few moments of true calm. But at no point does any of this feel overwhelming. At no point is it more confusing than it should be. It is expertly plotted, put together like a massive puzzle. Every piece has its place and it all adds up to the tapestry that is the whole of the narrative. It is insanely well-paced. The beginning of the book takes the requisite time to acquaint you with its world before speeding off into the meat of the story. From there, there is never a dull moment. There is a perfect blend of quieter moments where characters can shine and the narrative can be explored and big action scenes and tension-filled sequences that make you itch to keep reading. Every element of the narrative works in perfect harmony, demanding your attention.

Perhaps no element works as well as the novel’s characters – and there are many of them. Our lead character, Kira, is the one whose story we follow. The narrative follows her perspective and it is her journey we track. She is both an audience surrogate, getting introduced to much of the book’s crazier aspects at the same time as the audience, and a fully developed character who we immediately empathize with. It is through her that many of the novel’s bigger ideas are explored – what makes us human? If given power, would we create or would we destroy? How can the isolation of space change a person? These questions, and others, are central to Kira’s journey and are central to the novel. Paolini crafts a compelling story around this already compelling character and it makes for an engaging read.

Kira isn’t the only interesting character, though. She’s surrounded by a cast of equally interesting characters, both human and alien alike. Much of the novel is spent with Kira aboard the Wallfish, a smuggling ship crewed by Falconi and his crew. Every member of the crew is given the chance to shine, with each of them feeling multi-dimensional and as real as someone you might find on the street. Populating the novel with characters as realistic as these grounds some of the crazier elements of the books. It makes the whole universe feel lived in, which makes us more receptive to the weirder characters we meet. And we meet a lot of weird characters – from aliens to artificial intelligences to sentient technology. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is filled to the brim with creative and engaging characters, all of whom compel you to spend time with them and all of whom feel wholly unique and interesting.

As impressive as all this is, Paolini’s prose is almost as impressive. As I said, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, having never read one of his novels to completion. But here, Paolini manages a good balance between thoroughly describing things and leaving things to his readers’ imaginations. I, personally, am not a big fan of lots of descriptions. I like it when authors describe enough so that I get the gist of what something looks like, but leaves the rest up to my imagination. Paolini does this very well here, particularly when it comes to describing the aliens. He gives enough details that you have a good starting place but allows you to fill the rest in. The same is true with his action scenes, another element that is easy to overly describe. At no point do you ever feel lost in the action, stranded without a clue what’s going on, but you’re also not bogged down in endless descriptions of tactical moves. Paolini keeps everything very brisk and maintains a good tension throughout all of his prose. That’s actually a good way of describing his writing here in general. For a book that’s as long as To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is, Paolini manages to make it feel brisk and filled with tension and excitement. It’s no easy task and it’s something worth praising.

At the end of the day, I can’t praise To Sleep in a Sea of Stars enough. While I didn’t know what to expect from this book, I was blown away by what I read. It’s a long book that feels about half as long as it is. It’s so intricately plotted that it manages to be both understandable and hints at rewards to be found in subsequent rereads. It’s filled with sympathetic and relatable characters who feel distinct, fully developed, and realistic. There’s blockbuster-level action scenes and engaging moments of thought and philosophy. It’s everything you want from a sci-fi epic, and even more. If you’ve never read a book from Christopher Paolini, this is the place to start. And if you’re looking for a sprawling space opera, packed with intriguing ideas and an exciting story, you should absolutely read this book.

4.5 out of 5 wands.

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