Review: THE STARS UNDYING by Emery Robin

Publisher: Orbit Books
Page Count: 514
Release Date: November 8th, 2022
Series: EMPIRE WITHOUT END, Book 1
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars – Liked it!

Altagracia was supposed to have inherited the Pearl of the Dead and assumed the throne of her planet Szayet as the Oracle of their god. Instead, she’s in hiding, fleeing a sister who stole the throne from her. Gracia’s options are limited, until Commander Ceirran of the Empire arrives hunting a traitor who has hidden on the planet. Ceirran couldn’t care less about a civil war on a backwater planet, but Gracia is willing to do whatever it takes to make herself an irresistible ally. Regaining her throne may cost her more than she bargained for, however, as attaching herself to the most powerful man in the galaxy means thrusting herself into politics that could come with deadly consequences.

THE STARS UNDYING is a contemplative political sci-fi, light on action but heavy on musings about immortality and what makes a human soul. Thankfully, lead characters Gracia and Cierran are engaging enough to stop such musings from becoming dry theory discussions. These stand-ins for Cleopatra and Julius Caesar are as arrogant and calculating as you might expect; lovers, sure, though more lovers of the power each represents than a true kind of soul love. (I do wish it had taken longer than literally five minutes after meeting for them to have sex. Foreplay is its own power game.)

I admit, I floundered to get my bearings for the first several chapters as this is a book that drops you into a galaxy with no guide as to the players or the dynamics. It took me a good while to get straight that Szayet was a planet and that Ceiao was an empire that Szayet was in and Sintia was another planet entirely but for some reason everyone spoke Sintian instead of Ceiaon. A little more sign-posting or even a glossary would have been helpful, especially when discussing the complicated history of Szayet and its Oracles. The language in this book could be a bit flowery and intentionally vague at time, which made it harder to parse some of the world-building.

Once Gracia and Ceirran meet, however, the story becomes easier to follow. As the book jacket professes, this story is inspired quite a bit by the real-life exploits of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony. Anyone familiar with their histories, or who has read Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR, will see the broad outline of the plot beats coming, though the author has found plenty of ways to create their own story within this framework. (And indeed, they even use the audience’s familiarity of the story to build tension towards the end of the book.) Antony has been gender-flipped to a female character named Anita, a charismatic loud-mouth captain with a penchant for deliberately being uncouth or ignoring decorum just to get a rise out of people. And yes, just about everyone in this story is some degree of queer.

The writing style of THE STARS UNDYING is akin to something you’d find in a more classic style memoir; the chapters alternate first person POVs between Gracia and Cierran and are full of long sentences and wistful descriptions of their home planets. While this style absolutely fits the setting (the cultures feel like Roman society was simply dropped into space), it contributes to the more languid pacing of the book, an aspect I found a weak point. THE STARS UNDYING has an absolutely engrossing beginning and end, but the middle is sedate, content to let Gracia and Cierran go on a quiet royal tour of the planet while contemplating life and immortality. It left me wondering a bit where things were going, and I had to push through this middle section to get to the juicy ending.

THE STARS UNDYING is the kind of sci-fi story perfect for those who like headier themes. It cleverly plays with the audience’s assumptions and even dabbles a bit in unreliable narrator, as it becomes clear that this is a story being told to a third party and not all details are being revealed at first blush. You won’t find action sequences, but you will find debates, political maneuvering, subtle manipulations and plenty of scheming, with philosophical discussions layered on top. Best of all, THE STARS UNDYING is a complete story, though a sequel has been announced. If you’d like to sit back and contemplate immortality while a planet grapples with its past and future, this may be the political sci-fi for you.

Note: I was provided a free ARC by the publisher in exchange for my fair and honest review.

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