Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Review - The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson

Short review: It is twenty years after the end of the Elemental War, and several dozen characters find themselves engaged in mundane tasks when a new and shadowy enemy makes its appearance.

Not much common plot
Wanders to galactic war
Against bland villains

Full review: With a cast of dozens of characters, multiple plot threads, and a sprawling setting that spans an entire spiral arm of the galaxy, there are a number of words that can be used to describe this novel: Fat, flabby, ponderous, tedious, bland, and dull. There are some words that do not apply: Exciting, interesting, engaging, or good. Although The Dark Between the Stars is purportedly the beginning of The Saga of Shadows, it is actually the eighth book in a series, with the previous seven books making up the interminably overlong Saga of Seven Suns, meaning that a reader coming into this "new" series has to catch up on seven books worth of material to make heads or tails of what is going on in this book.

There are so many problems with this bloated and boring novel it is hard to know where to begin, but the most glaring issue is that The Dark Between the Stars clocks in at just under seven-hundred and forty pages in the mass market paperback edition, and that's about four hundred pages too many. This novel needed some rather extensive editing to winnow out the massive volumes of filler that reduces what should be a rip-roaring, fast-paced adventure to a plodding and mind-numbing grind. Entire chapters, entire characters, and entire plot-lines could have been excised from this volume and not only would doing so not have negatively affected the story in any meaningful way, the amputations would have dramatically improved the book.

The story is told via rotating viewpoints, with each chapter being told from the perspective of one or another of a couple dozen viewpoint characters. This results in a disjointed and chaotic book without any kind of central plot for the reader to hold on to and, paradoxically, no characters to care about. Each chapter tells a snippet of that character's story, and the perspective then shifts to a new character for the next chapter to tell another snippet of story. The end result of hopping from character to character is that the book has no narrative focus, and each of these substories meanders along in little disconnected vignettes, stopping for chapters at a time so that the book can wander off to drone on about the mostly meaningless doings of four, five, six, or more other characters before returning to pick up the thread it left hanging thirty or forty pages before. Plot threads are started, dropped for a hundred pages, and then picked up again. Or they are simply dropped and never returned to.

Rotating between characters can be a viable means of structuring a novel - George R.R. Martin and Harry Turtledove have done it successfully multiple times. But when those authors do it, they usually start with a plot and then branch out as the stories of individual characters develop. In The Dark Between the Stars, Anderson starts with a collection of unrelated chapters, and doesn't actually get around to providing something resembling an actual plot until about page two hundred. Even after the book has a vague facsimile of a plot, Anderson keeps wandering away from it for chapters on end to update the reader on some mostly irrelevant doings of a side character who is taking shore leave to go to his favorite restaurant, getting muddy in kelp fields, or cataloging asteroids. Time and again, the action of the book grinds to a halt just as it starts to pick up steam, dropping something promising in favor of more tedious triviality. The plot, such as it is, would probably be more interesting if the villain wasn't the wooden and dreary "Shana Rei", creatures made of entropy and shadow that have no goals other than to exterminate all life. It is somewhat fitting that the Shana Rei want to drain life out of the universe, because whenever they show up in the story, they drain what little life there is out of the story. Anderson even manages to make space battles against the Shana Rei dry and dull, which almost makes forgivable the fact that he breaks away in the middle of the action so that the reader can be regaled with the administrative doings of a medical research facility.

Having a story driven almost entirely by individual character sketches might possibly make for a decent book, provided that the characters were interesting and well-developed. Unfortunately, the characters Anderson creates are flat and boring caricatures that have no depth at all. Calling the characters in The Dark Between the Stars "cardboard cut outs" would imply they were two-dimensional, which is one dimension too many. Every character in the book is essentially the same except for one defining note that marks them as unique, and in some cases the "unique" element is just the job they have. Every character sounds the same, and most act the same as every other character in the book. Even the evil bug robot allied with the Shana Rei sounds exactly like all of the other characters in the book. As a result, it is nearly impossible to care about any of the characters, and nearly impossible to care about what happens to any of them. The characters are all so bland and the writing so colorless, that even when one drops entirely out of the narrative, it is all too easy to simply not notice their absence. With no real plot of consequence, and a collection of bland characters, nothing of real consequence in the story is ever really resolved, instead the story merely stops in media res, waiting for the next book in the series to be disgorged.

One element that makes so many of the characters feel the same is that they are all "special" in some way or another. If a character isn't a king or an emperor, they are the son or daughter of a king or emperor, or they are a former elected leader, or the child or grandchild of a former elected leader, or they are notably important in some other way. Even when a character at first seems to be just a pilot for a freight ship, a promising student, or a mechanic, they almost inevitably turn out to be politically connected via their family. The handful of people who are not politically connected are almost all villains: The self-made evil industrialist, the self-made evil workaholic and loyal sidekick to the evil industrialist, the self-made evil medical researcher, and her mysterious evil henchman. The real problem with this interlinked web of family and political connections is that it doesn't actually give the characters in it any kind of personality of their own. Shareen Fitzkellum isn't made any more of an interesting character because she's the granddaughter of Del Kellum, especially since Del's only personality trait is that he used to be the Speaker for the Roamer clans. The end result is a huge roster of people who are all more or less interchangeable, knitted together in a web of relationships that the reader simply has no reason to care about enough to keep straight.

This lack of characterization simply sucks the life out of any of the events that take place in the book. Early in the novel a lava mining operation on the moon Sheol suffers a catastrophe that we are told kills more than fifteen hundred people. Given that the catastrophe was predicted by one of the characters and the warnings were ignored by the evil industrialist, this seems like it is supposed to be a pivotal, character-defining moment. But even though he establishes dozens of characters in the novel, Anderson never bothered to do so for any of the lava mine workers, leaving entirely empty the emotional core that should have been at the heart of this sequence. Instead of providing the reader with a character to identify with who could experience the horror and terror of being buried alive in a container overwhelmed by lava and bringing home the weight of the disaster, we just get a number that is thrown around so much it becomes almost meaningless. The dead workers are an afterthought at best, and since it is clear that Anderson doesn't care about them at all, the reader doesn't either.

The world-building doesn't do the book any real favors either. Anderson has created a sprawling fictional world for his characters to live in, but it is clear that he had no real idea of how to put it together other than to throw everything and the kitchen sink into the mix. In an odd twist, the setting feels much more like a standard fantasy setting than a science fiction one, with fire elementals, water elementals, magical possession, magical intelligent trees that altered priests can talk to, magical healing "blood", space elves, and so on and so forth. One of the characters has a title that literally translates as "wizard-emperor". But Anderson also hits a pile of space opera tropes as well - space gypsies, free roaming space traders, royal guards armed with crystal weapons, space kings and princes, and more. The problem with this sort of blender style method of worldbuilding is that after piling trope upon cliche, the sum total that results is a rather generic and flavorless morass. None of this is helped when Anderson reveals, when describing the supposed effects of having Earth's moon turned to rubble, that he doesn't understand how gravity works, or what drives the tides on Earth.

All of this might be salvageable if the writing was good. Unfortunately, it is not. I have seen reports that Anderson claims to have written 240,000 words of the novel in roughly two months, and it shows. Large chunks of the novel read like they were written by someone in a middle-school composition class with lines such as "[w]ith seven suns nearby, Ildira's perpetual day kept all shadows at bay". Despite the fact that the novel is ponderously long, many sections amount to hurried accounts of what went on, telling the reader what is happening rather than actually having the action unfold. After the Sheol lava mine disaster, the reader is told that several workers who were trapped managed to record messages before they died. We are told that some left messages for their families, some cursed the evil industrialist who had skimped on safety measures, and some seemed resigned to their fate. But that's the sum total of what the reader is told about these messages. Instead of giving some weight to the story by giving actual first-person messages full of anguish, anger, and fear to read, Anderson simply tells us the kinds of things that the workers recorded with no emotional content at all. This sort of flat and bland reporting of events happens over and over in the book, yielding a story that feels oddly rushed despite the book's substantial length, and at the same time making everything homogeneous and uninteresting.

Amidst the lifeless prose, Anderson does display a few odd linguistic quirks. One of the odder ones relates to a character named Rlinda whose personality traits are that she is fat, loves food, and has been married multiple times. There are several references made to Bebob, her "favorite ex-husband", which seems perfectly ordinary at first, until it is revealed that the reason Rlinda is no longer married to Bebob is that he died. Referring to a deceased husband as an "ex-husband" is possibly technically correct, but it is certainly a strange way to phrase the relationship between the two. There are other idiosyncratic stylings in the text: At one point a set of warnings that had turned out to be accurate are described as "Chicken Little" warnings, weapons are referred to as being spears in one passage and katanas in the next, and so on. These are the sort of minor oddities that one might expect from an author for whom English was not their first language, but seem like careless or even thoughtless incongruities in a book by a native author - caused perhaps by the fact that the book was drafted at the breakneck pace of approximately four thousand words a day. Writing at such a furious pace, it seems, imposes its own costs.

At one point in the novel a character with the simultaneously trite and ridiculous name Tom Rom eats what is described as a flavorless nutrient bar. This seems like an apt metaphor for The Dark Between the Stars, except that rather than being nutritious, the novel is junk food. It is just bland and flavorless junk food. Over the course of one hundred and thirty-nine chapters, a collection of one-dimensional characters in a generic space opera setting meander through an almost nonexistent plot, eventually arriving at an inconclusive and uninspiring ending. Granted, this book is the first in a trilogy, so one would expect some plot threads to be left hanging to be resolved in future volumes, but instead virtually everything is left hanging and the book simply stops rather than coming to any sort of conclusion. In short, this is a novel in which a cavalcade of fairly uninteresting characters drift through a thin plot until the book winds down to an unsatisfying conclusion.

Subsequent book in the series: Blood of the Cosmos

2015 Hugo Award Nominees

Kevin J. Anderson     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. You deserve credit for not only persevering but engaging with this book sufficiently to write a review. I literally found myself staring at the back of a chair while trying to read this novel, as if my brain was saying 'you know what would be more engaging right now? Looking at the back of this chair.'
    I think this nomination did a huge disservice to Kevin J Anderson - his staying power and sales suggest that he must write entertaining books. Perhaps if I'd been following the whole series, I'd have found this more engaging? I'm unwilling to try and find out :)

    1. @camestrosfelapton: One small benefit of the short, choppy chapters that make up the book is that I was able to take frequent breaks while reading to give my brain a break. Or, more accurately, wake my brain up by doing something else for a while.

      I don't think this was a particularly uncharacteristic offering by Anderson. In fact, I have seen Anderson quoted as saying that he loves having a story "this big to play with" and "all those characters to turn loose in the story". He clearly thinks this is good work, and not the shoddy and somewhat slapdash effort that it reads like. His work in, for example, the Dune universe has been similarly bland and uninspiring, so I think that this book is actually fairly representative of what Anderson's writing is like.