Requiem of Stars Book Review
Read from 05/22/22 - 08/29/22
Me and my fellow fantasy-loving friend often talk about our disdain towards the prevalence of fantasy series. There isn't anything inherently wrong with series, it's moreso the utter lack of options that irks me. It's annoying to go to a used bookstore, pick up a book that sounds interesting, then invariably find out it's “Book 2/5 of the Dragonbottom Chronicle.” Let's say you do find that elusive first book of a series. Maybe you just want something to read for a month or two and you're not willing to dive into a lengthy series, especially when you've recently been burned by an overly-long fantasy epic.
So imagine my pleasant surprise when I found Requiem of the Stars, a standalone fantasy novel, in a library's bookstore. While Goodreads does list it as the first book of the Songs of the Stellar Winds trilogy, with a sequel book being nowhere in sight nearly 30 years since its release, it's safe to say that this is a solo book. And a relatively short one at that — with a little under 380 pages to its name, Requiem of the Stars looked to be a breath of fresh air compared to the exercise in excess known as The Wheel of Time.
Better yet, it was written by Tracy Hickman, one half of the duo behind Dragonlance which helped me get into fantasy when I was in middle school. I even planned on reading Dragonlance's grand return, but Requiem of the Stars derailed that plan.
All this to say that I was prepared to enjoy spending a month, tops, reading this rare fantasy one-and-done.
Three months later, what I ended up reading was a pretty effective example of why series are the norm in fantasy.
But to understand why that is, you need to get a sense of what we're dealing with, here.
Requiem of the Stars centers around the Sherindan, a frigate starship of the Pax Galactus empire, powered by silverfire to sail along the darkwind. While traveling, the Sherindan is attacked by a rebel outfit led by Thyne Hauhgt-Cargil who wants to enact revenge on the Pax for plunging her world into chaos. Opposing her is First Master Serg Dresiv, who finds himself in charge of the ship in the ensuing battle. Soon, the remaining pirates and Sherindan crew are forced to team up to survive against an otherworldly threat.
If that sounds like a lot, then it is. If that doesn't sound like a lot and you're sure that, as a seasoned fantasy reader, you can make heads or tails of it, then don't worry, you can't.
There's an entire magic system, political organization, and ship structure, among other things, that you're expected to just intrinsically understand since Hickman absolutely drops the ball when it comes to worldbuilding. As I said, the low page count at first seemed like a blessing, but I soon saw it for the curse that it truly was. We blitz through a story that requires an entire world to be explained with little explanation to be had. The effect leads to an unsatisfying narrative that’s difficult to follow — we're being yanked forward without enough time to process what's going on.
We begin the novel in medias res, which is normally an effective tool. It can be a bit disorienting, yes, but it's typically not a problem since you're able to make sense of it later on. That isn't the case here.
Exposition dumps are usually lambasted as being lazy due to violating the sacred rule of "show, don't tell," but even if you consider it sloppy, it's still better than nothing. Maybe it might make things a bit early on, but that's the advantage of a series — the first book can dedicate itself to worldbuilding.
Requiem of the Stars is stomach-churningly full speed ahead for the vast, vast majority of its duration. There's no “tell” nor “show,” just “go.” You could maybe get away with this with a high fantasy book, a generic fantasy story relies heavily on the archetypes codified by Tolkein and D&D. As a space opera sci-fi, you really have no such luck.
It doesn't help that Hickman, at least here, isn't great at description. And this is coming from someone who really doesn't care for sweating the details when it comes to a physical scene. Readers can usually fill in the blanks easily enough. Again, I welcome brevity over Jordan's overly detailed yet superfluous writing style, but when we're dealing with alien structures, I cannot stress enough that careful, detailed descriptions cannot be avoided. Unless you're Tracy Hickman, I guess. His descriptions are akin to notes for a class — filled with so much hastily-written shorthand that it's hard to parse for anyone who isn't the author. I had a hard time effectively picturing much of anything in this book.
The end result is I legitimately felt stupid while reading.
The strongest part of the book occurs nearly midway when the cast is abducted by aliens. It's still not compelling, mind you, as it comes out of nowhere and as established before, I wasn't given the tools to care about the civilization being wiped out, but at the very least, for the first time in the book, the readers and characters are on the same footing, both in over their heads in a world that doesn't make sense to them. You could call it damning via faint praise, but as this ends up taking a decent chunk of the book, it does manage to win back some sorely needed points.
But hey, the setting and plot are only half the story. What about the characters? A well-rounded cast can do wonders for a novel and personally, I can look past other a book's shortcomings if the characters are strong.
Unfortunately, the characters aren't much to write home about. The separatists, the rebel antagonists that ally with the remnants of the frigate crew come the alien threat, have an opposite problem as the second half of the plot in that I found them compelling, yet not particularly strong. They're about as flavorful as a bowl of Lucky Charms with the marshmallows plucked out, but I understood their motivation of wanting to free their world from the tyranny of an uncaring, sprawling empire. Toward the beginning of the novel, a particularly poignant flashback carried this group for me.
This is much more than I can say for Serg, Thyne's equivalent, a representative of the Pax Galactus. Now, I don't know about you, but for me, it's infinitely harder to make an agent of an unfathomably-large empire as sympathetic as a rebel fighting for her home and Hickman seems to actively refuse to put in the work of making him likable. When he's not being Generic Action Man or hinting at a regretful past, he's raving something along the lines of "the Empire is the picture of order and how in the world could someone from an insignificant speck of a planet ever understand its methods?"
That's what we in the industry refer to as a "y i k e s" moment.
What's worse is that, unlike Thyne, Serg's backstory is revealed during the eleventh hour at which point I was firmly past the point of caring about him as a character.
And I know this is a minor, petty point, but I cannot stand when fantasy and sci-fi authors swap out actual curse words for made-up ones. It's not cool worldbuilding (especially when your characters speak standard Engish the rest of the time), it just comes across as juvenile. Requiem of the Stars has this in spades ("dran" is the substitute for "damn" for example, which isn't even a particularly biting curse) and it just makes reading even more of a chore.
For all I criticize this book for, there are crumbs of interesting concepts sprinkled about. What little we read of this world's history is compelling, I'd love to learn more about the aliens, and it was cool to see the relationship between the parties develop, even if much like other aspects of the story, it felt rushed.
The best part of the story novel is, again, the chapter in which we're treated to Thyne's past, thus effectively showing us why she's the way she is. This makes the rest of the book all the more frustrating because it shows that Hickman honest-to-God has the capacity to write compelling characters, but he just decides to coast by with minimal effort.
The story concludes open-endedly, inviting a sequel that obviously never materialized. This novel comes up short even if you decide to view it as a part of a larger story, as it's so middling that it robs readers of any interest in continuing this saga.
And that's the one word I'd use to describe Requiem of the Stars: middling. My review comes across more harshly than this story warrants. At the end of the day, it's not offensively bad: it's a nothingburger. Its best quality is that it serves as a case study of how not to launch your sci-fi/fantasy series.