Book review: Vonda N McIntyre — The Starfarers Quartet

Note: I received this as a review copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Omnibus edition of the Starfarers Quartet, published as an ebook reprint edition. The basic concept is a near-future setting where a space habitat is being built and fitted out for the first attempt at an interstellar voyage, using a recently discovered piece of cosmic string in the Solar System as a means of accessing almost instantaneous travel to another solar system. The habitat is set up as a university campus under international control.

In the first book, the station’s purpose is being politicised, with an attempt by the US government to commandeer the habitat and re-purpose it as a military station for use in a peacekeeping mission on Earth, nominally under international control but in reality completely controlled by the US.  The university faculty vote to continue their mission as planned, even if it means making an emergency run to the string and out of the solar system.

The second book begins with the Starfarer’s arrival in the Tau Ceti system, accompanied by a parting shot from the military cruiser which had been sent to stop them. The alien contact team who were the main focus of the narrative in the first book now get to do their job for the first time. The third and fourth books continue the story of the Starfarer crew’s attempts to interact with Civilisation

I found the first book somewhat frustrating to begin with, as I found the writing style a little hard to get on with, particularly the way a lot of point of view characters were simply dropped into the narrative with their own chapter and then abandoned for a while. It made the book feel very bitty to begin with. But once I had a handle on who all these people were and how their individual stories started to weave together, I found it fascinating.

The first book ends on something that is both a bit of a cliffhanger and resolution of the main plot. It could be read as a standalone. The next three books each end with resolution of that book’s piece of the story arc, but leave the reader expecting to see more arc — and unfortunately that includes the last one. It felt to me as if the author had left too many loose ends dangling at the end of the quartet, even though we do see the resolution to the main question of whether they will both make it safely back to Earth, and whether they will be able to leave the Solar System again once they have returned.

Some of those loose ends *really* needed tying up, to the point where I found it seriously irritating that they weren’t. It’s not billed as a mystery, but one of the plot threads certainly came over to me as being a mystery, with clues being dropped that the Starfarer crew had got something wrong — and it was never resolved as to whether they had or not. It may be just that I was misreading the author’s intentions and she *had* intended for the wrap-up somewhere in book 2 or 3 to be the Final Wrap-up of that thread, but if that was the case she should have refrained from making suggestions that there was a further secret behind the one unveiled. It left me feeling as if the final bit of that storyline in the last few pages was missing a significant part.

That niggle aside, I found the books very enjoyable to read once I’d picked up enough of the character threads in book 1 to follow what was going on. There is wonderful, wonderful world-building with a description of the maiden voyage of Earth’s interstellar ship, and the things it finds Out There.  And while the number of characters introduced in a very chop and change manner is confusing at first, it makes for a great depth to the characterisation over the course of the four books.

Some particular points of note — this series has both good science and good emotional development. And on the latter front, the people side of it includes the three members of a poly partnership amongst the lead characters – in a world where legally binding romantic partnerships of any sort are mildly unusual. This isn’t thrown in for titillation, but forms part of the world-building. And while we’re on the subject of diversity, the lead characters aren’t non-stop Default White American.

While I’ve rated this 3 stars overall, that’s partly a reflection of my disappointment with the ending. I’d happily recommend that people download the first book, available as a free sample from BookViewCafe, and try it to see if they like it enough to buy the full quartet.

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