The Dark Between the Stars: Poor plotting and characterization undermine some interesting ideas

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J AndersonThe Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J Anderson

There are some fascinating ideas in The Dark Between the Stars, the first book of the SAGA OF SHADOWS trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson. This is the second trilogy in this particular universe, original to Anderson, who is probably better-known for his collaborations with Brian Herbert in the DUNE universe.

In The Dark Between the Stars, four plotlines unfold. A terrifying enemy has re-emerged in the Spiral Arm after millennia; in another part of the galaxy, some people discover a strange new phenomenon; an outpost of the dreaded Black Robots, left over from a war with the insect-like Kilkiss race, is discovered, and a deadly plague is activated. Eventually, these plotlines converge, but that convergence depends on too many coincidences, some action points that are even more random than coincidence, and characters who choose and act not from their own hopes, fears and motivations, but solely in service to the plot.

Humans and Ildirans have joined forces after a war against fire elementals called faeros and some air elementals called hydrogues who live in the upper atmosphere of gas giant planets. The new government of humanity is centered on Theroc, where “green priests” interact with a forest of sentient trees. Currently, humans and Ildirans are coexisting peacefully. Ildirans have shared their faster-than-light stardrives with humans. The drives are fuelled by an ectoplasmic substance called ekti, which is collected or “mined” on various planets. The Roamers, interstellar human travelers, mine ekti and some other things like heavy metals, and there seems to be a schism forming within the Roamer community, as some want to accept societal changes while others cling to the old ways. Garrison Reeve is the outcast son of one of the traditionalists, and he works in a lava-mining station on an unstable planet. When Reeve’s warnings about the planet are ridiculed by his boss and his wife, Reeve takes his son and flees. Reeve and his son travel into an unknown part of the galaxy and uncover a strange new thing.

In another part of the Spiral Arm, an Ildiran exploration vessel encounters what appears to be a dark nebula. It isn’t; it is a cloud of darkness that engulfs the ship. All Ildirans are connected telepathically, and people on the home planet become aware that the ship is in distress. In another part of the Spiral Arm, a human general and an Ildiran commander on practice maneuvers find a cache of deadly robots, created by the Killkis. The robots awaken and escape.

These events are connected thematically by the use of the folklore of the Ildirans, which speak of a terrible enemy called the Shana Rei. The Ildirans had almost come to believe that the Shana Rei were just boogeymen, but a human historian uncovered some sealed vaults that provided more information about the terrible beings that come out of darkness. Their goal is the destruction of all sentient life and they may be capable of achieving it.

The Shana Rei are powerful adversaries, and Anderson makes them interesting. However, with 685 pages of story, The Dark Between the Stars moves slowly, with large sections (at least fifty pages) devoted to characters who are being positioned for Book Two. Short chapters, each chapter presented from a different point of view, emphasize both the slow pace and the fact that plot points don’t connect; characters react to threats that appear out of nowhere. There is little cause-and-effect of a key character dealing with the consequences of an action. Even though the threat is real and scary, the story is episodic, with no increasing tension until the last fifty or seventy-five pages.

Characters change their behavior when the plot requires it, with no internal growth. An example of this is Orly Covitz. Orly is a passive character. Her marriage ends through her husband’s initiative, not hers. Her boss sends her on the mission that changes her fate. When confronted with a crisis, Orly suddenly makes an assertive choice that will change her life. We never see the inner shift that drives Orly’s behavior. Another example is Prince Reyn, the heir apparent to the human king and queen, who has a problem he is keeping from his family. It’s a serious one, but his actions in the book do not advance this story.

There is an almost insurmountable logic problem with the story as well. The people of the Spiral Arm are familiar with faeros, hydrogues, water elementals and sentient trees, yet they have no protocol for assessing, or assuming, sentience. When they encounter a new phenomenon, it never occurs to anyone that they may be encountering, not a thing or an activity, but a being. This implausible blind spot exists solely to make the plot manageable.

The Shana Rei are fascinating, and so are the things called “bloaters.” The worldforest with its instantaneous communication with any other world-tree, anywhere in the galaxy, is wonderful. I wish Anderson had identified key characters and written a story for The Dark Between the Stars where the plots points sprang organically from the actions of those characters. There are many missed opportunities here.

Publication Date: June 3, 2014. Twenty years after the elemental conflict that nearly tore apart the cosmos in The Saga of Seven Suns, a new threat emerges from the darkness. The human race must set aside its own inner conflicts to rebuild their alliance with the Ildiran Empire for the survival of the galaxy. In Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars, galactic empires clash, elemental beings devastate whole planetary systems, and factions of humanity are pitted against each other. Heroes rise and enemies make their last stands in the climax of an epic tale seven years in the making.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. many of the same issues I’ve found in his other works

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