Hold Back The Stars by Katie Khan // striking sci-fi splices space and society

26804769Author: Katie Khan
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: 26th January 2017
Category: crossover, adult
Genre(s): science fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: won
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In whose name? 
Not God, not king, or country.
In whose name?
My own.

Adrift in space with ninety minutes of air left and nothing to hold on to but each other, Carys and Max are fighting for their lives.

Their shuttle is damaged and Earth looms far below them. They can’t help but look back at the well-ordered  world they left behind – at the rules they couldn’t reconcile themselves to, and the life to which they might now never return. But in a society where love is banned, what happens when you find it? And when the odds are stacked against you, what do you do to survive? 

A simple premise, straightforward prose and a striking plot shape this remarkably confident début. It sees two fairly familiar stories entwined – one in space, the other earthbound – in a page-turning, engrossing read which slowly reveals how heroes Max and Carys go from aspiring chef and scientifically-orientated pilot to astronauts trapped in the vacuum of space. It’s smart, stylish and memorable, with a plenty of tension, conversation and even a few surprising twists. It’s a fast, pacy read, and I was so gripped I read it in one sitting.

Carys and Max’s Earth is a world in which the problems of the past are being solved by a new way of life: one where everyone spends time in each other’s countries, where languages are picked up like clockwork, and where the only loyalty is to oneself. This distinctive world-building makes for a strong backdrop to the exploration of the line – which sometimes turns surreptitiously sinister – between utopia and dystopia. At turns chilling, vibrant, unsettling and effective, Khan takes time to create a feasible utopia while simultaneously illustrating its flaws and the ultimate inability of the system to fit everyone. Max was raised with the ideals of Europia, which have brought peace, prosperity and understanding to a war-torn world. Carys is more skeptical, scornful of believers who send their children away and condemn them to years of loneliness on Rotation through different Voivodes. But neither wish to tip the balance that has made their world a better place – until they find each other.

Here’s where the book’s cover copy gets a little misleading. Love isn’t banned (this isn’t Delirium) but long-term relationships have become obsolete in a system which obliges citizens to move to randomly-assigned cities every three years (at least in those under 35, when they are permitted to choose a partner and have children). Unfortunately for a novel so pinned on a relationship, I wasn’t swayed by the romance. There’s an effort, however, to avoid the pitfalls of “the fate of this system depends on these two specific youths being definitely, completely unable to be together for REASONS!” trope, and they are interesting, compelling characters.

Then there’s the minor complication of Max and Carys spending much of the book FREEFALLING WILDLY AWAY FROM THEIR SPACESHIP. IN SPACE. The planet is surrounded by a recently-arrived, apparently-impassable asteroid field, and Europia wants to know how to navigate it. Fast-tracked to the space program and losing signal with on-board computer Osric, Max and Carys are going to have to rescue themselves. It’s a high-stakes concept and I couldn’t wait to see them aboard Laertes. 

Except we never get to see them aboard Laertes. There are almost no scenes set on the shuttle! There are mentions of experiments, a greenhouse and Carys’ flying skills, but the book never once lets the reader see what they’re ACTUALLY DOING in space in the first place. It builds up to their journey and just skips right by it. Imagine listening to a great song only for it end before the rousing chorus. Or buying an ice cream and getting an empty cone! It leaves out potentially the best part! Anyway, I WAS TOLD THERE WOULD BE SPACESHIPS AND THEIR ABSENCE IS DISAPPOINTING.

As a portrait of societies and human psychology, Hold Back the Stars frequently delivers. Max’s relationship with his parents is strained, while Carys is much closer to her mother Gwen. Many third-generation Europians have stopped investing in meaningful relationships altogether, overcome by the endless series of leavings, monotonous contribution and the isolation of being separated from family and any notion of lifelong friends. Secondary characters are each almost visibly confined and kept at arm’s length in a system which above all values the transient individual.

The downside to this characterisation is, however, that some seem flat, and if the book is occasionally thin on narrative richness, it can be traced to the base calculation of the novel: a cinematic efficiency in which the simplest of plots can be shaped to yield the highest impact result. I would’ve liked to see some character and world details more richly fleshed out. Older fans of Lauren James’ The Last Beginning and Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars will find some things to like, but I still prefer Becky Chambers’ brilliant The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. 

Of course, there are plot holes. Why do two characters walk into a grand hall to discuss their love lives and walk out in charge of a space shuttle? Who thought this was a good idea? If Carys is such a skilled pilot, why don’t we get to see her being a pilot for more than ten seconds? Why can different languages exist but not associated cultures? Did anything aside from impromptu Shakespeare readings happen on Laertes? Will I ever read more than two sci-fi books in a year where the romance is actually consistently romantic? Why is this book being marketed as YA when its characters and content are clearly adult fiction? WHO EVEN KNOWS.

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Page-turning, striking and atmospheric, Hold Back the Stars is snappy sci-fi which is as much about a society as it is about a relationship. In some ways I would’ve liked more from it – more romance, more developed characters, more spaceships, more detail – but it’s still an engrossing read.

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