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“The Wrong Stars” and “The Dreaming Stars” by Tim Pratt

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Tim Pratt is best known for his fantasy novels. In addition to tie-in books for Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, he’s written the original novels Heirs of Grace and The Nex. His space-opera Axiom Trilogy is, therefore, something of a departure. In The Wrong Stars, Callie and her crew discover a derelict spaceship at the edge of the solar system. It’s one of many that Earth sent out in the midst of ecological and political disaster centuries ago, a desperate attempt to make sure humanity would survive if its original home fell. So why did it never even make it out of the Sol system? How has it gone undiscovered for so long? Why is only a single member of the crew left aboard? And what is that weird device grafted onto the engine?

The Dreaming Stars continues the adventures of Callie and the rest of the White Raven’s crew. They’ve discovered that the answers to some of the questions asked above are downright terrifying. With the help of an alien ally and a human who might be either an ally or an enemy, they set out to confront what could be an existential threat to all other intelligent life in the universe.

Pratt maintains a delicate balance in which the setting’s technology is advanced enough to evoke wonder from the reader, but not so advanced that the characters can effortlessly solve every problem they come across. Interstellar travel has been accomplished by “bridges” between star systems, but only at designated arrival and departure points. Aliens are known to exist, but their culture and psychology are sufficiently different that interacting with them is sometimes challenging. Cybernetic body modifications allow for humans to accomplish feats that would be impossible for a purely biological person, but not everyone goes in for them. And while the characters’ world is better than ours—prejudice against people of differing skin tones or sexual orientations seems to be almost nonexistent, for example—it isn’t perfect.

I particularly like the way AI is portrayed in the series. Strong AI exist, but such entities are essentially cloned from human minds. They start out virtually identical to their template minds, but differing experiences cause them to diverge over time.

Another aspect of the novels I appreciated was the diversity of character traits and the way they play off each other. Whether enthusiastic, jaded, acerbic, or philosophical, the characters’ personalities informed their actions and choices. While some get along with each other better than others, all the interactions are interesting.

The next (and presumably final) installment, The Forbidden Stars, arrives in October. It promises to raise the stakes even further, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the White Raven’s crew handles their new challenges.

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