“Starsight” is the sequel to “Skyward!” by Brandon Sanderson, an author who really understands not only about creating complex characters but also about writing a plot that boasts gripping nonstop action. At the start of this series, Spensa, the main character, is not a very likable person. She’s a teenager who has grown up determined to be a pilot like her father, and after he died in combat, allegedly running away from battle, a coward, she has had to defend his name.
Spensa lives on the planet Detritus, and she is the descendant of a group of humans who crashed there when being chased by aliens during a war. They have created a society on it, but are always in danger as aliens, the Krell, attack them constantly. In fact, pilots are constantly needed to stop the Krell from attacking and killing them.
While Spensa is undisciplined, rude, antagonistic, defensive, and violent at the start of the series, she matures and softens, especially in this second book. In the first book, she is eager to kill all enemies, especially the Krell. But nobody has ever actually seen a Krell, so the humans don’t know what they look like.
In the first book, Spensa and her best friend repair an antique ship they find in a hidden cavern. This ship, M-Bot, is equipped with AI, and it definitely has a personality. Is it alive? That’s a question that readers will consider. There is also the slug-like creature that’s yellow with blue spines. He/she repeats what Spensa says and seems to appear at her side at all times. Both the ship and the slug are her most constant companions.
In this second book, Spensa ends up at the center of a space station, Starsight, in the middle of a battle between different factions of the Superiority governing rulers. While many aliens live on Starsight, and it’s a huge city, there are “first citizens” and lesser species. Humans, because of their violent tendencies and the fact that they tried to control the universe, are outlawed and kept on Detritus as a sort of “preserve.” Spensa is pretending, with the aid of hologram technology, to be a human-like species.
The writing is extraordinarily colorful and effective, and Sanderson includes stories that make us think about what is right, when to follow orders, and what it means to be a hero. One story that Spensa’s grandmother tells Jorgen, one of Spensa’s fellow pilots on Detritus and a good friend of hers, is about “Stanislav, the hero of the almost-war.” She tells the story of the real Russian, Stanislav Petrov, who in 1983 ignored the Russian early warning system that warned American missiles had been launched against Russia. His gut told him that it was a false alarm, and he did not notify his superiors. It was a false alarm, and he perhaps saved the world from a nuclear war. When in the story Jorgen complains that while he was right, “….if he’d been wrong, then he would be remembered as a coward at best, a traitor at worst,” Gran-Gran responds that if he’d been wrong, “….he wouldn’t have been remembered. For nobody would have lived to remember him.”
Something that makes “Starsight” special is that in addition to the action and the descriptions of world building, Sanderson demonstrates that Spensa is truly changing and becoming not only a likable person, but a person to admire. She admits when she makes mistakes about interpreting alien gestures and begins to understand how little she really knows about the universe. And the character change happens naturally, gradually, and in a manner that is somehow charming. While Spensa is basically saving the universe, she’s also becoming a kinder, more compassionate person and overcoming her basic prejudices.
Be forewarned, this book ends on a cliffhanger. But it’s an exciting ride. The first two books are each around 500 pages — not quick reads, but a fascinating story.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Delacorte Press, the publisher, for review purposes.