When I first picked up Vic James’ Gilded Cage, I did so initially with some trepidation because of the book’s blurb, which made me think that it would be yet another example of bog-standard young adult fiction of the kind that’s become all too prevalent post-Hunger Games. However, since it was next on the list of books to read for the little online book club-slash-discussion a friend of mine and I currently have going, I knew both of us would have to give it a chance, despite our own concerns regarding its potential content.
We did, however, console ourselves by lining up Kameron Hurley’s standalone space opera The Stars Are Legion as our read right after Gilded Cage. Our logic was simple: if we liked Gilded Cage, then all would be well; if we did not, then at least our next read would be something of guaranteed quality, because both of us are fans of Hurley’s writing and knew that, no matter what she did, she would not disappoint – or in the unlikely event that she did, then surely it would not be as bad as reading yet another example of White People’s Love Triangles at the End of the World.
Fortunately, our worries were baseless – Gilded Cage turned out to be more enjoyable than its summary on Goodreads led us to believe. This meant, therefore, that I went into The Stars Are Legion with a light heart, and I am glad I did, because the book is as good as I expected it to be, which means that it is also quite dark.
The Stars Are Legion is set in the far-distant future, in an equally distant part of the galaxy. There, a group of world-ships called the Legion is consumed in war, but this has gone on for so long that no one is even sure why they are at war in the first place. In the meantime, the world-ships break down and decay, and as they die, one by one, those living on them realise that something must be done, lest they lose the only homes they have left.
Zan is fairly sure that she has a role to play in the war – it’s just that she doesn’t quite remember what that role is, or much of anything else, for that matter. She’s also fairly sure that there is something else that she ought to be doing – something to do with the woman named Jayd, whom she doesn’t remember much of except that she’s in love with her – but until she can figure that out she is sent once more to the world-ship called the Mokshi, which only she, apparently, can enter and supposedly conquer. It is also the only place where she can recover her lost memories, or so Jayd tells her. And since she wants those memories back, Zan dives right back into the Mokshi despite her own misgivings. During this round, however, she is stopped by a group of raiders from one of the other Legion worlds, and this attack leads her down a path that she never expected she would walk. It also reveals to her the plan she and Jayd engineered long before: a plan that would free them from the Legion’s slow spiral into destruction – and maybe, save them all in the process.
One of the most notable things about this novel is that all the characters are women. Because of this, readers have compared the novel to Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch, which do not have any male characters either. However, they are two quite different beasts: in Leckie’s books, the Radch uses a language that uses a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. However, since English is a gendered language, Leckie had to choose between “he” and “she” as the gender-neutral pronoun of the Radch, and she chose “she”. Therefore, in Leckie’s books, all sapient entities, even non-human ones, are referred to as “she”.
In The Stars Are Legion, on the other hand, all the characters are women in the sense that they are “individual[s] of the sex which conceives and brings forth young.” This is quite different from Leckie’s setup, which has more to do with language than biology. This is important, because the ability to bear young is crucial to the worldbuilding and plot of The Stars Are Legion, whereas that same quality is not as important in the Imperial Radch books.
Before anyone misunderstands my point, I wish to add that this does not make Hurley’s concept superior to Leckie’s, or vice-versa; I point out the difference merely to show that Leckie’s idea is not necessarily exactly the same as Hurley’s, as some readers have assumed. Indeed, Hurley’s take on the matter connects deeply to the worldbuilding and themes of The Stars Are Legion, as well as to the fact that Hurley is currently one of the best grimdark writers in SFF. Anyone who reads grimdark already knows that the genre is (in?)famous for being particularly gory; those same readers are also probably aware that Hurley specialises in a particular flavour of grimdark, one that involves a lot of bodily fluids being spilled in a variety of ways that do not involve sex (rape having been used so frequently in the genre that in the hands of incapable writers it is reduced to nothing more than meretricious shock value).
The Stars Are Legion, however, is quite different, as the following excerpt shows:
I dream of a woman with a great craven face walking along the surface of a massive world. She is a titan. She snatches flying vehicles from the air and crunches them in her diamond teeth. Green lubricant and yellow puffs of exhaust escape her gaping mouth. Little blue insects flitter through the ether, and when the encounter the yellow mist, they fall down dead, like leaves.
The surface of the world is covered in wavering tentacles, and the titan grabs on to them for purchase as she strides across the world, snarling and spitting out the corpses of her enemies and poisoning everything she breathes on. She snatches at one of the flying vehicles and stabs herself in the stomach with it. She cuts long and low, and though I expect her to cry out in pain, she only roars and shows her teeth as gouts of blood pour from her body and float lazily to the surface of the world, sluggish and distorted by the low gravity.
Hurley’s take on grimdark, as has been showcased in her other works besides this novel, has more to do with the violence and bloodiness of being a woman. On one hand, a woman can be a destroyer, as the excerpt and many other scenes throughout the story show, but she can also be a creator – but that process of creation means to be wracked with the pains of childbirth, and covered in its blood and muck. In other stories, pregnancy and birth are portrayed as miraculous, even magical (consider the virgin birth narrative in mythology and Christianity), but that is not the case in The Stars Are Legion:
Arankadash heaves one more time. I hear something fleshy slide to the ground.
She lets out a long breath that turns into another moan and leans hard on the crystal behind her. She reaches up for me, and I hold out my hand. She levers herself up and reaches beneath her.
I take her hand, averting my gaze from the thing in her arms again. I help her back to the circle. When I glance back at where she gave birth, I see a placenta and great gobs of afterbirth. We bleed, we birth, we bleed again.
Since the characters reproduce asexually, they might all be described as “virgins” after a fashion, but there is nothing miraculous or magical about the birthing process, nor about the pregnancy, for that matter. It is convenient for many writers to forget that birth can be just as bloody and dangerous as war, but Hurley does not let the reader forget this. In this novel, both creation and destruction involve a lot of blood and gore and, to a degree, violence, and so they are two sides of the same coin: one cannot exist without the other.
This means, of course, that there is some very interesting worldbuilding at play here. In typical fashion, Hurley has written this novel with the “sink or swim” approach to worldbuilding: by which I mean, she does not build the world completely for the reader, but instead relies on clues and small details, and then trusts that the reader is sufficiently intelligent to put the pieces together and build the world on their own. This is not an easy way of writing a story, nor is it an easy way of reading, but it is the sort of challenge I enjoy when it is done correctly, and Hurley has already proven in her other works that she is more than up to the challenge of writing in such a manner, just as I, as a reader, am up to the challenge of reading such a story.
However, I am beginning to think that such a technique might work a bit better in a longer work – something that’s at least two volumes long, instead of just a standalone. While the level of detail Hurley uses in The Stars Are Legion is enough to give the reader a good grasp of how the Legion works and what, exactly, is going on at the heart of the story, there are still plenty of questions that I think should have been answered. For instance, a little more insight into just what is causing the decay of the worlds would have been helpful, especially given that it is that issue that lies at the heart of Zan and Jayd’s stories, and therefore at the heart of the entire novel. Of course, this could just be my own, personal preferences speaking, since I really am curious about and want to know and understand the nature of the Legion and how it works, but at the same time I cannot help but think that knowing the history behind the crisis Zan and Jayd face might go some way towards coming to grips why certain characters do what they do and act the way they act in the novel.
And speaking of characters, they are quite fascinating to read about, though they are not always as refined in their characterisation as I might want them to be. Zan and Jayd, for instance, are fairly well-developed, since their stories lie at the heart of the novel – this, despite the fact that I am not especially fond of the amnesiac trope used for Zan, which I think could have been played off a bit better than it was in the novel. Despite that flaw, though, Zan remains an interesting, if not necessarily likeable (not that likeability has ever stopped me from enjoying the way a character is written) character. The same goes for Jayd, who is also a character the reader might not like very much, but who is still fascinating as a character in her own right.
The other characters, unfortunately, don’t quite get the same treatment. Characters like Das Muni, Casamir and Arankadash, for example, who appear later in the novel, don’t quite get the same treatment as Zan and Jayd, though that might be understandable in the grander scale of things. But not even Rasida is as well-developed as I might like her to be, though she is another key character in the novel almost on par with Zan and Jayd. I suppose this lack of development for some characters, even though they might need it, might be because this novel is a standalone, and so any truly in-depth development has suffered somewhat in favour of moving the overall plot forward.
And speaking of the plot, I have a slight problem with that as well – mostly in Zan’s storyline. There is a point when her story shifts from being about war and politics to something more akin to an exploration-based action-adventure story than anything else. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, I do wish that it had been a little longer, or the transition back to the more momentous, war-related action in the novel’s final third made a bit more smoothly.
Overall, The Stars Are Legion is everything readers can expect from Kameron Hurley: dark, bloody, and violent enough to satisfy the most discerning readers of grimdark, and all in one, standalone package – a rarity in a genre where stories are told in a minimum of two to three books. However, perhaps because of the constraints of keeping this story limited to one volume, there is plenty of interesting detail that is not explained, which in turn leads to the reader not quite understanding why some characters do what they do and act how they act, which in turn leads to some characters not being as fully developed as they could be. Despite these flaws, though, the novel is still an enjoyable read – provided, of course, that the reader has a high tolerance for blood, gore, and body horror.