Review: The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

29090844Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution.  As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.

Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan finds that she must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world.

Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion’s destruction – and its possible salvation. But can she and her ragtag band of followers survive the horrors of the Legion and its people long enough to deliver it?

I have a complicated relationship with Hurley’s work – or with The Woldbreaker Saga, since I haven’t read her other stuff. On one hand, it helped me realize what kind of story I like, which in turn helped me on figuring out the stories I want to write – The Mirror Empire, the first book of The Worldbreaker Saga, and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season were, in all honesty, the only books that made me go, damn, I wish I was the one who wrote that because they are exactly the kind of stuff I love.

On the other hand, though, I always felt a bit iffy about how Hurley deals with gender. Or rather, with non-binary genders. I won’t talk much about it here because this isn’t a review of the The Mirror Empire, but I wasn’t impressed with the Dhai’s five genders (four of which seem to be related to one’s personality, of all things, and none of which is ever brought up again in the narrative) and the lack of non-binary main characters in the first book besides the one whose body changes from “male” to “female” without them wanting it to do so and whose pronouns change to “fit” the body. So when I read the blurb of The Stars are Legion I was both excited and wary.

I’m afraid to say I was right in being wary.

First of all, The Stars are Legion is a good, even great book. Everything I loved in The Mirror Empire is back in this: the original worlds, the weird ideas and the really interesting plot (*really* weird ideas that are just delightful, like women giving birth to stuff the world needs and to the worlds themselves. I mean, how cool is that?).

I didn’t care much about the characters though, which didn’t surprise me – I also didn’t care about most characters in The Mirror Empire. I think it happens mostly because, I don’t know to explain exactly, but it’s because Hurley doesn’t give me what I need to care about the people she creates. I’m one of those readers who needs to like a character to truly love a story and while I appreciate how Hurley’s women are capable of doing horrible things, I’m not really into liking people who commit genocide. Another thing is that I don’t really feel connected to her characters’ emotions, wants, needs and fears, so I usually don’t care about who die and who doesn’t.

That didn’t stop me from enjoying the book and reading it in a single day, though. I like Hurley’s books because of the plot and the worlds, so I usually start reading them knowing the characters won’t do it for me.

Unfortunately, the book kind of did nothing with gender. Now, I wasn’t expecting it to go on a Gender 101 or anything like that, but all characters are cis women. It makes sense in the worldbuilding, but it’s just downright depressing. The lack of cis men wouldn’t necessary mean that none of these people would question what gender is and how they feel about it or if they are really women and not something else entirely. More importantly, the lack of and the impossibility of trans women existing just doesn’t sit well with me, too.

Don’t get me wrong – I know pretty well that The Stars are Legion is revolutionary with its all female cast. No, with its all female cast and the complete absence of cis men and of the idea of cis men, which is a big deal in a genre like science fiction, but well, it is revolutionary to whom? Cis people, mainly. Sorry, but it’s the truth and honestly? It’s a nice truth, in a way. Cis men will get mad at this book and if I see one of them throwing a tantrum about how feminists are ruining everything because of The Stars are Legion I’ll probably laugh my ass off and bathe in his tears.

But to me, a nonbinary person, a book with only cis women isn’t any more revolutionary than a book full of cis men.

Now we are getting to my real issue with the book, which… isn’t about the book itself. Yes, I’m disappointed by how simplistic everything related to gender was in it. I think it had an opportunity to say more about it and it didn’t. But my real issue is with the place this book will occupy and how everyone (aka cis people) will see it. It is being lauded as revolutionary, as progressive, and even as edgy and it is… for cis women. It erases trans and nonbinary people and I don’t really care about how much sense this erasure makes for the worldbuilding. It isn’t that revolutionary, isn’t that progressive. It literally just does the bare minimum to distance itself from the cis men heavy classic sci-fi books.

Which wouldn’t be a problem if people weren’t so desperate for it to be most progressive sci-fi book ever. I mean, people are allowed to write whatever they want. If a cis woman wants to write something with only cis woman in it after decades of reading about cis men doing everything in sci-fi, who am I to say it isn’t progressive enough? But it’s that old thing: what you create isn’t produced in a vacuum. Again, my problem isn’t with the book itself – it’s with how it might grow bigger and bigger to be The Book that challenges sci-fi’s old tropes and prejudices, to be The Book everyone recommends for those who want sci-fi that isn’t male, straight and white when it erases nonbinary and trans people, when nonbinary and trans authors are out there pushing boundaries this book doesn’t even dream of.

Maybe it’s unfair to throw all this on this book in particular (I mean, it’s not its fault that so many people are almost shitting themselves over how progressive it is, though it kinda is that so many people didn’t even notice how it erased trans and nonbinary people), but that’s how I felt when I read it. Like I said before, it’s a great book and it tells a great story. I’m just worried about what it will mean to the genre in the long run. Maybe I’m worrying needlessly and it will actually open doors instead of closing them, but we don’t know that yet. We will have to wait and see.

Anyway, I was going to give it 4 stars, but after writing all this I feel like it deserves a little less. 3.5 stars for The Stars are Legion.

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