Book Review: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are Legion is almost certainly the sunniest novel Kameron Hurley has ever written, which was a pleasant surprise. At the same time, it’s still very recognizably a Kameron Hurley novel, with its badass women, moral ambiguity, and copious grossness. It might be the most ambitious Hurley novel to date, at least thematically; it’s a smart, quick read; and it’s full of the inventive worldbuilding that Hurley is best known for. That it’s a standalone novel rather than the first in yet another new series that I’d have to follow for several years is just icing on the cake.

To start with, there are only women characters in this book. They live in a vast fleet of living world ships and reproduce through a kind of parthenogenesis that doesn’t always produce human babies. Unfortunately, the world ships are sick and dying, and the women who inhabit the ships are at war with each other. It’s against this backdrop that we’re introduced to Zan, who has no memories as well as a quest and an arduous journey ahead of her, and Jayd, who has a valuable womb and a complicated, high stakes plan that takes several hundred pages to unfold. The book has been called, somewhat jokingly, Lesbians in Space, and this has even been adopted as something of a marketing phrase for the title. However, though all the women in the book are lesbians, there’s not much romance to be had, the sexual relationships depicted are dysfunctional at best, and the overall tone of the novel is much darker than that blithe description, humorous as it is, would indicate. I was only mildly disappointed by this, but it does seem like a failure to manage reader expectations.

That said, Hurley’s choice to have only women characters is an excellent one for the story she’s telling. War is a common theme in Hurley’s work, and complex highly stratified societies are recurring as well. Here, the decision to have complex, highly stratified and brutal societies made up of only women makes it impossible to interpret them through the lens of patriarchy. The violence endured and meted out by the characters in The Stars Are Legion isn’t gendered, and we’re able to examine it as a function of corrupt hierarchical systems without the complication of sexist gender dynamics. Hurley creates a truly alien world that frees her characters from real-world constraints and expectations and frees herself as an author from having to communicate her ideas about war, pregnancy and birth, violence and abuse, and healing with any consideration of men’s opinions, points of view or desires. This is a novel that is probably as free of the male gaze as it’s possible for a book to be, and that’s refreshing.

As always, Hurley’s worldbuilding is excellent, and the enormous world ships she imagines are just marvelous. The first part of the book is full of almost over-the-top ugliness as we first meet Zan and Jayd and are introduced to the warring spacefaring families they are members of. The world ships themselves are living things, metal is rare, and everything seems to be at least slightly sticky and/or oozing. The women themselves are battle-scarred and often cruel, even our protagonists, and things get even weirder and more viscerally disgusting when Zan finds herself “recycled,” cast down into the bowels of the ship where she finds a great abattoir ruled by enormous woman-eating beasts. Hurley’s vivid description is at times slightly overwhelming in this section, and readers without a stomach for gore may find it deeply unpleasant. If you make it through the first part of the book, however, it pays off big time. Zan’s journey back to the top of the world is compelling stuff, and the slow reveal of Zan’s history and purpose as she journeys through alien lands to finally achieve what she and Jayd planned together is masterfully executed. The other women Zan meets along the way are fascinating characters as well, and the lands they move through are less bloody than the areas described in part one but just as slimily odd and even more wonderful.

If there’s any major criticism that can be levied against this book it’s that Zan is almost too interesting. Her story tends to dominate the book, and it’s so full of adventure and excitement that Jayd’s story of political maneuvering, manipulation, and patiently waiting and hoping for Zan to return has a hard time holding the reader’s interest. In the end, it’s Zan who must make pivotal decisions and take actions to create a different ending to a story that has played out in many variations many times before. It’s not that Jayd is uninteresting or even particularly passive. It’s just that Zan has an epic journey to take in search of her own identity, while Jayd’s struggle to survive by her wits and charm doesn’t have nearly as much sightseeing to it. While Zan and Jayd have a close to equal number of POV chapters, Jayd’s story never has as much room to breathe as Zan’s, and nothing Jayd does feels quite as consequential as what Zan does.

Still, The Stars Are Legion ticks off a lot of boxes on my list of things I want to read. I love difficult and unlikable female characters, and Jayd and Zan are a pair of glorious, passionate, murderous bitches like no others. I never get tired of Kameron Hurley’s weird fixation on bugs and organic tech and lavishly described gore. An all-women space opera with war and generation ships and parthenogenesis and a bit of a hero’s journey and a message, ultimately, of something like hope? Perfect.

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