Cassandra Rose Clarke’s novels to date favor a sense of Gothic claustrophobia. The Mad Scientist’s Daughter details a fraught, largely unrequited relationship between a girl and her android tutor, and then a stuttering romance between a woman and the first of his kind; much of the action, as it were, is set within the childhood home, with its almost Freudian delineations. Our Lady of the Ice takes place in an emotional (and almost literal) snow-globe: the people and not-quite-people of a domed Antarctic settlement bang against Hope City’s glass like moths, dreaming of a place in the world outside the ice. While these books deal in robots, changing climates, and gear-punk alternate futures, Clarke keeps her attention solidly trained on the most intimate of relationships: family ties, childhood friendships, the neighborhood, the home.
In Star’s End, Clarke tries her hand at space opera, a genre of widescreen activity, brimming with starship battles and terraforming worlds, the alien, military leaders and corporate intrigue, and so on: all the gadgetry, idealism, and defeatism of uncharted starmaps and the colonial instinct. You find all of that here, crammed into and spilling out of another intimate story. We follow the life of Esme Coromina, daughter of Phillip Coromina, who terraformed all the satellites of the self-named gas giant Coromina I—Ekkeko, Catequil, Amana, and Quilla—and in the 300 long years of his life, built the Coromina Group into a corpocracy. Esme is the heir to the throne of a government of one, plus a corporate board. She learns in the opening pages that her father is dying. He wants her to find her three sisters, scattered to the winds more than a decade ago when their childhood home of Star’s End burned to cinders.
The narrative saws between a first-person view of Esme’s life, from the birth of her sister Isabel, to Isabel’s disappearance in the fire, and third-person account of her life now. It’s a subtle cue, but strongly felt: her past is so much more vivid and felt than her present corporate machinations. In the third person, she argues with her father, and the board. She sets off on a fool’s errand to bring her sisters home, to the deathbed of a father who was anything but fatherly. Even Esme, who has made a sick, hopeful kind of peace with her relationship with the Coromina Group (and, by extension, with her father; they are one in the same) doesn’t believe he wants to see his wayward daughters for sentimental reasons.; he has only and ever been motivated by self-interest. That he sees Esme as part of his self-interest is the binding tension of the novel: is she her father’s daughter, or her sisters’ sister?
Esme has always felt divided from her siblings: the twins Adrienne and Daphne, and the youngest Isabel. In addition to being considerably older, she’s also of a different mother. Esme is the daughter of a mercenary soldier, Harriet, who blew threw Ekekko on one of her postings, pausing only to conceive Esme. As a soldier, she couldn’t raise the girl, so she left her with her father, hoping that life as the scion of a corpocracy would be better than the hardscrabble one of a soldier’s daughter. (Whether that is the truth takes a novel to decode, and even then.) Esme has a strange, time-shifted relationship with her mother, listening over and over to missives sent from wherever classified location Harriet fights, sending her own responses to ping through the dark.
Her sisters’ mother is a soft, softening force to her father, turning Star’s End briefly into someplace worth living, bringing children and company into the show house atmosphere. She humanized Phillip Coromina, and built a bridge between him and his daughters. When she dies, her children are too young even to understand her passing, but Esme can perfectly feel the loss. When her sisters age, they resent Esme’s distant mother, even though it’s irony, irony, and irony that Esme lost their mother too, and never really had one of her own.As righteous as Esme may feel about these parental relationships, it doesn’t quash the guilt and responsibility she feels about certain actions of her father, and her ultimate culpability.
Star’s End is Esme’s story. She—distantly, painfully, doggedly—works to find her lost sisters, even as she remembers why they were lost (why she was lost). Like the characters in Clarke’s other works, Esme is both deeply felt and almost coldly divided from herself. There is so much going on at the edges of her tale—the ethics of product-soldiers, and of the corpocracy in general; the inhumanity of longevity treatments; the inhumanity of humanity—but Clarke never pins you with a didactic moment. She tells the story of a sister, a daughter, in an extraordinary situation that nevertheless feels close and personal.
Space opera often trades in larger-than-life moments, like the tall tales of Phillip Coromina’s system-wide conquest. Star’s End finds the genre’s more personal moments, navigating an internal (but no less cataclysmic) geology.