In Perhaps the Stars, things get weird. And for a series that OPENS with a
sage being restrained by a serial killer after witnessing a boy resurrect a toy
soldier, that’s saying something.
New themes of identity and destiny join familiar ones like gender, violence,
sex, and religion, and author Ada Palmer pushes them all to twist the plot in
unnerving directions. Due to catastrophes in critical infrastructure, it plays
out in a context that’s surprisingly distinct from the preceding three novels.
Palmer capitalizes on their cast of multi-lingual characters with fun
linguistic considerations. They sprinkle these throughout the series, but they
come to a head in Perhaps the Stars. Readers get the most exposure to JEDD
Mason, a character whose confused verbal communication skills are on display in
full force. And a great fuss is made over a secret, ancient
document–particularly a single made-up word which is not quite Latin. It’s all
deliciously nerdy, although speech also creates the series’ most glaring
incongruity. Characters regularly conspire within larger groups by switching
languages, and for some reason, no one excluded by this practice ever objects.
This book continues a trend away from world-building and toward political
drama. Consequently, Perhaps the Stars has the fewest historical references
in the series, which is a shame because that was one of the most impressive
aspects of Too Like the Lightening.
The divinity/magic/science-we-don’t-understand-yet from previous installments
also comes to a head. It makes for some interesting circumstances, particularly
as it relates to a character who subconsciously alters reality (folks who dig
this might enjoy the manga/anime series “Haruhi
Suzumiya”). Unfortunately, by
subverting the story’s overall plausibility, this also undermines the political
drama (and no, the fact that one character literally refers to another as a
“deus ex machina” does not excuse this).
My favorite aspect, though, is yet another familiar theme dialed up to “11”: an
intricate narrative context. On top of the events themselves, the reader has to
consider who is writing, who is editing, when the writing took place, and who
has read what’s been written so far.
In this situation, the narrator’s unreliability comes to a breaking point.
Separating fact from imagination can be engaging for a reader, but when all
bets are off, it can start to feel frustrating since it prevents you from
forming and testing hypotheses. I realized that Palmer had earned a lot of my
trust when I found myself wondering, “am I supposed to be frustrated right
now?” That’d be a pretty charitable excuse for most novels, but for a book that
exists inside its own story, I think it’s plausible.
Despite being the most cerebral entry, Perhaps the Stars has some of the most
emotionally-powerful moments in the series. These mostly come as first-person
accounts of people in traumatic conditions, and each one had my heart in my
I started the “Terra Ignota” series looking for a workout, and I got it. The
conclusion had plenty of payoff but also enough ambiguity to keep it from
feeling pat. It’s not for the faint-of-heart, but if you like complexity in
your speculative fiction, then you can’t do much better. I say this even though
(and maybe because) I’m certain I missed plenty of nuance. That ought to make
re-reading it worthwhile, but frankly, I don’t know if I have the patience. My
final advice is to read it with a friend: a second perspective will help you
appreciate more of the detail the first time through–it sure did for me. And
for the story’s bigger twists, it helps to have someone to hold on to.