Barbary Station is loaded with levels of space pirate action few books could hope to match, delivered in a way you’ve never experienced before. R.E. Stearns’ debut hits the ground running, introducing us to our coupled protagonists, engineers/lovers Adda and Iridian, as they awaken in transit to the titular station onboard the Prosperity Dawn, a colony ship they intend on stealing. Fresh graduates of an engineering program and drowning in debt, with few lucrative job prospects on offer, the pair hope the heist will be enough to impress the infamous pirates who control Barbary Station. If they’re invited to join the crew (of which Adda’s brother Pel is already a member), they figure they’ll be set for life—even if said life involves work of the less-than-legal variety.
Though their methods and motivations aren’t always admirable, it’s hard to fault Adda and Iridian when it comes to their skills. Adda is a software expert; Iridian is a wizard with hardware. Between them, few challenges prove insurmountable. Take commandeering the Prosperity Dawn—they need to master the AI flying the ship, safely evacuate the passengers and crew, and avoid damaging thevessel in any way. Easy peasy—even if they do require the help on an inside man, the mysterious Reis.
But once they arrive at Barbary Station, Adda and Iridian learn the place is hardly the pirate paradise Pel described in his messages home. He certainly never mentioned the murderous AI holding the station’s inhabitants hostage. They also learn pirate leader Captain Sloane’s price to even consider allowing them to join the crew: defeating the rogue AI, a feat that has proven difficult (and claimed the lives a more than a few pirates) thus far.
Barbary Station becomes both a refuge and a haunted house, with potential threats lurking behind every bulkhead. The AI is remorseless, viewing humans with the impassivity of virus detection software, and willing to use every means it could access to eliminate them, from deadly armed drones to modifying the life support systems. How things got so bad on the station remains unclear, as competing groups onboard offer fragmented accounts, but by the time Adda and Iridian arrive, supplies are scare and tensions are high, and a fun pirate romp shifts into something akin to a survival horror video game.
Stearns views the old trope of an AI bent of wiping out humanity with fresh eyes—quite literally, in fact: in order to learn more about the way the machine thinks, and how it might be stopped, Adda must plug into a virtual interface and slip into a drug-induced state in which bundles of commands and code are replaced with tangible environments she can manipulate, resulting in a few genuinely creepy moments that push the book into horror territory. Meanwhile, we also see the strain this process puts on Adda, and the lengths Iridian will go to in keeping her partner safe.
Adda and Iridian trade off point-of-view chapters. We see them as much together as apart, but throughout, the relationship between these two queer women of color gives the book its heart. They share a natural ease and affection developed over years, and seem to be able to communicate volumes with the slightest glance. Their love in the face of likely death and impossible odds weaves a hope into the fabric of a story that goes to some pretty dark places.
The cast of characters surrounding them aren’t given a great deal of backstory, which feels natural considering the novel’s structure. We do get just enough to bring depth to the pirate crew, who are, collectively, closer to Robin Hoods than Blackbeards. Adda’s brother Pel brings a bit of levity, cracking constant wisecracks despite enduring trauma that has left her permanently physically scarred. Captain Sloane is a looming but mysterious presence throughout—even their gender remains ambiguous—and ultimately, the pirate leader is as great a threat to Adda and Iridian’s happiness as the AI. If the captain isn’t impressed, all their efforts will be for naught.
Barbary Station is a dark delight—a space pirate adventure following a pair of women ready to carve out their path to happiness, no matter what they come up against? The book ends neatly, but leaves ample room for more adventures in this universe, and I do hope there are more.