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“The Forbidden Stars” by Tim Pratt

Several times in the first two books of Tim Pratt’s Axiom Trilogy, characters mention the Vanir System, a human colony with which the other human polities have lost contact. No expedition sent to find out what happened to the colonists has ever returned. In the third and final installment, The Forbidden Stars, we finally discover why the Vanir System has been out of contact. The answer presents new challenges for Callie and the other crewmembers of the White Raven, as well as an escalation of their conflict with the Axiom.

As one would expect from the final volume in a series, The Forbidden Stars resolves several ongoing plot threads. One of these involves the Benefactor, a mysterious individual who’s been feeding the White Raven information about various Axiom facilities. In this book, the Benefactor sends an embodied AI called Kaustikos to accompany the crew on a mission. At first, it might seem like this steps on the toes of Shall, an established character who’s also an AI that often downloads itself into mobile robotic bodies. Pratt is careful to make Kaustikos’s personality and the appearance of his chosen body distinct enough that he doesn’t feel like just Shall 2.0.

Pratt also keeps up his record of introducing interesting and awe-inspiring technologies. The Axiom are played up as being almost godlike, walking advertisements for Clarke’s Law. There’s obviously a delicate balance to maintain in telling stories about such beings. If they don’t live up to their hype, readers will be disappointed. But if they’re too powerful, it will be hard to believe that the main characters could ever fight them effectively. Pratt keeps this balance nicely. When the function of the new Axiom technology discovered by the characters at the beginning of the book is revealed, it’s almost literally gasp-inducing. But because most of the Axiom are still in suspended animation, the conflicts faced by the crew are on a more manageable scale.

I do have one minor plot-related quibble. At one point, when Callie and company are in a bad situation, we discover that Callie had planted some devices to thwart the villains in such a scenario. While this is entirely in character for the intelligent and suspicious captain, it wasn’t foreshadowed at all, so it seemed to come out of left field.

I would have been happy to see the Axiom series continue, but The Forbidden Stars does bring both the overall narrative and individual character arcs to satisfying milestones. The trilogy was a fun ride and makes me eager to seek out more of Pratt’s work.

“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.