Starfire is the debut novel of Stuart Vaughn Stockton, and was an April release from Marcher Lord Press, book one of The Mending. I tend to read more fantasy than science fiction–it just seems more of it catches my attention. But Starfire is one of the strangest science fiction novels I’ve read.
Why’s that? Well, there are no humans or human-like aliens. Thus it goes against one piece of advice that beginning sf writers are told: to make sure the reader is fully sympathetic with the main character. The more alike the reader and the character are, the advice goes, the deeper the connection between the two. So a sure-fire way to turn OFF a reader is to make the main character unlike him.
So then what’s up with a computer-using dinosaur? Yep. Stockton’s main character is Rathe, a Yanguch on a planet with fifteen saurian species on it…and not a single humanoid anywhere in sight. Let me introduce you to the first few paragraphs:
Rough stone tore Rathe’s palms as he stumbled through the gaping maw of the cave. He tore away the make-shift leaf filter covering his mouth and sucked in the cool underground air, soothing his burning lungs. Pain lanced through his side as each breath tortured cracked ribs.
He turned to the entrance and gazed into the ash-clogged air outside. Grey blanketed the world like a shroud, quickly swallowing his large three-toed tracks and obliterating any scent that would lead the trackers to him. Satisfied that he would be safe for the duration of the ash fall, Rathe staggered farther into the cave. His claws echoed hollowly on the stone floor, their quiet clack, clack, clack bouncing into the darkness.
The musical trickle of water sounded nearby, and Rathe angled toward it. Sudden wetness at his feet alerted him to the presence of a shallow pool. He lowered gingerly to the ground and stuck his snout into the chill liquid. The bitter taste of ash flowed over his tongue, but sweet relief filled his parched throat. Yet each swallow intensified the pain in his ribs.
The cool, moist rock felt good against his hot skin. He rolled onto his left side, away from the fire in his battered ribs, and stretched out to his full twelve-foot length. His tail-tip lazily slapped against the ground as drowsiness flowed over him. The water’s flow sung him to sleep.
A shrill cry jolted Rathe from soothing darkness.
Normally I would say the character has spent a little long wallowing in pain and relief before that shrill cry comes, but because of Rathe’s nature, I think Stockton needed to give us all these hints (which I bolded) before the action gets rolling too quickly. The reader needs to clearly see that Rathe isn’t human without being told it flat out. In fact, Stockton excels at showing, not telling. Look at the paragraphs above once again and note all the solid action verbs. Even though we’re entering the story at a relief point rather than an adrenaline jump point, Rathe is active, and we’re a part of his action.
The action continues throughout the tale of traitors and wars, of things that are not what they seem. The Karn Empire has an ancient enemy, the Herian Dynasty, who has been encroaching on their territory. When Rathe and his team are sent to spy, they’re shocked to discover how deep the incursions are. Why now? What are the Herians after? And how did it become Rathe’s destiny to stop them?
The negatives? The same things that make Stockton’s work so unique: all the saurian species, plant species, types of weapons. In short, the world is fully-formed, functioning, and not at all like ours. I had a hard time keeping all the strange terms straight. Stockton does include appendices for this, but I prefer to keep reading than look things up. As a result, I was sometimes more lost than I wanted to be.
Starfire is a book for folks who love an exploding helicopter or two in their reading. The pace stays high and the stakes increase. If you love action and dinosaurs, you’re in for a good read.