Christopher Paolini is known for having started the Eragon series when he was quite young, and falling into a startling amount of success with it. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars represents not only his first novel targeted towards adults, but a shift to science fiction from what was previously a well-known fantasy author. The result is strikingly different from his previous work, a risky wndeavor for a man with an existing fan base.
The book centers on Kira, a young professional in love with her coworker, who makes the startling discovery of an alien artifact. There are protocols in place for such matters, the reader is told, and still the plot spins into unexpected territory. Kira quickly finds herself suffering a series of losses that are downright terrifying, and would crush any reasonable human being. These are compounded by terrifying circumstances hitting her one after another, leaving her a threat to and hope for mankind.
Kira is very much not a perfect heroine, having clear dislikes, a desire to learn combined with fears based upon experience which leave her torn in many circumstances while desperately attempting to make up for the mistakes of the past. The illusion that she recovers from certain trauma too quickly might exist, however it should be remembered that the events of this book take place over many months, rather than days or weeks.
A host of other characters are introduced, ranging from black-ops military to slightly neurotic spaceship-minds. This last, named Gregorovitch, is an often present figure who represents a transhuman experience in a fascinating way for Kira, and an ever increasing concern as to the sanity of a character that was difficult to measure by human standards.
There are multiple alien races in the novel, from a long-forgotten people known as the Vanished to invading forces called Nightmares and Jellies by the various human powers. Kira, as a viewpoint character, serves to familiarize the reader as each of these strange new entities appear. Through her mix of curiosity and grief the setting and the alien nature of those around her become all the clearer.
At least one strangely topical moment can be found in the book. At one point a character is reflecting on his past, remembering protesters being “up to no goodod”. In light of the treatment of protesters in 2020, this is a statement that can definitely come off as offensive to certain readers. There is no evidence this was intentional, and indeed given the long lead time for a book like this it is unlikely that it was meant to be as topical as it is.
After the text proper, there are number of appendices which attempt to explain everything from the way space travel and combat work, to the general lexicon of the setting. While these are arguably slightly self-indulgent, spending pages upon pages describing the faster-than-light system, they do no harm. There is a section of afterword and acknowledgements in which Paolini discusses the extreme difficulties he had writing the book, and some of how it changed from draft to draft. For one interested in the writing craft this is more interesting, although again goes on quite some time.
Overall To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is an impressive achievement for Paolini, a move into a genre that was very much not his first, and an impressive one at that. Interesting characters, clever use to existing science fiction ideas, and a long and winding plot serve to draw the reader deeper and deeper. Easy to recommend to fans of this genre, though fans of Paolini are in for the unexpected.
(Tor Books, 2020)