In The Stars Are Legion, Kameron Hurley Transforms Space Opera into a Scream of Rage

Book reviews are hardly immune from hyperbole. Despite my attempts at restraint, when I really love something, I can become quite… animated. Dear reader, do not mistake what comes next for embellishment: everything I’m about to say about The Stars Are Legion, the newest, standalone novel by Kameron Hurley, comes to you from the bottom of my spaceship-loving heart.

Zan doesn’t remember who she is. She wakes up wounded, struggling, and furious. She tries to leave, but is stopped by Jayd, who says they are sisters. She tells Zan how she was ordered to go and take back the Mokshi, a rogue ship in the Legion, a hive of living worldships orbiting a distant sun. Zan failed. It was not the first time. Again and again she has undertaken the mission. Each time, she’s come back broken, without her memories. Echoes lurch and heave themselves through Zan’s mind, but she cannot hold onto them. All she knows is that she is a soldier. It’s what she’s good at. And so, she prepares to go to the Mokshi again. This time, she vows, it will be different. Different from what, she cannot remember.

This book is unlike any space opera I’ve ever read. I had no idea what to expect, page by page. It is a sweeping epic, monstrous in its intent, naked in its hopes, and devastating in its reveals. It is also incredibly intimate in its portrait of two broken characters. Hurley effortlessly navigates the massive plot and the personal journey of those inside it, even as her creative engines fire up to full throttle, and she shows us horrors we’ve never before imagined. This is Ursula K. LeGuin by way of Mad Max: Fury Road, with a shot of New Weird and a sobering jolt of horror to help it go down like a jagged little pill. It is feminist. It is angry as hell. It is a wonder, and if it doesn’t put Hurley on the mainstream radar, then there is no justice in this world.

The first fifty pages or so operate almost like a locked room mystery, except the mystery is that Zan cannot remember who or what she is. Everyone she meets seems to know, and their comments and confrontations with Zan begin to lay out the pieces of a puzzle that won’t lock into place until the very end. The world welcomes you in too, this weird living vessel, a bio-organic horror, every piece of it alive, and everything part of the diseased whole—even the crew, forced to give up their wombs in servitude of the whole, literally birthing parts needed to make repairs and people needed to make a future.

With a ruthless economy of storytelling, we’re introduced to the hierarchy and caste systems that are the organizing principle of the worldship, the dynasties that have set themselves up as rulers over the course of generations, and are given a demonstration of the weaponry and ecosystems that function at the very top of the world—and then Hurley tears it all down, all the way to the bones. Zan is caste down to the bottom of the world, down with the waste and the unwanted. She must climb back to the top if she’s to save the Legion from the conspiracy threatening to tear it apart. The journey will change everything.

Everything about this novel sings, but it’s not a pretty song. Characters, setting, plot, voice, worldbuilding: it feels like all the grueling work Hurley is known for—her unclassifiable science fiction and fantasy stories, full of weird tech and broken people; her furious career as an outspoken essayist—has been leading to this novel. This is a story of women, beautiful and terrible and powerful in a myriad of ways, their lives thrumming with complexity, pain, lust, and rage. They hurt each other, and kill for what they believe in, slog through agony and come out the other side. Its most powerful message is a belief that it is possible to do good; if you fight hard enough, if you organize and come together, if you put aside hate but never lose sight of justice, the work will be rewarded. The right people will choose to break the system, and build a more just one.

And that hope is the thing. Hurley knows from grim, but what sets aside The Stars Are Legion is its intrinsic hopefulness. It is operating on the assumption that the world can change for the better, no matter the pain involved in getting us there. And that makes the work worth doing. Zan and her gaggle of scavenger women, mutant women, warrior women, scientist women, are different in every conceivable way, but their causes intersect. Together, they literally lift each other up in order to get where they need to go. Each is haunted in her own way: failings of their past, traumas born from choices made or not made, wounds given and wounds received. But together, they make a ship of themselves, propelling ever higher. Strength is personal, but when it becomes communal, that power is amplified tenfold.

The Stars Are Legion is a masterwork, and one that I dearly hopes becomes a classic in the genre. I fear saying too much more, because to reveal too much is to unravel everything Hurley has built in this delicate, dense narrative. Please trust me when I say it has literally everything a lover of genre fiction could ever want: complicated characters, a weird and deadly world, and a story that is both universal and unique, a fresh perspective on that age-old space opera narrative, the fight for freedom from tyranny. It is a work that transcends genre, and will hopefully resonate outside the group of readers who are already very much in the tank for this sort of thing. This is deeply feminist, raw, moving stuff. It is current, it is important, and it absolutely deserves your full attention.

The Stars Are Legion is available February 7.

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