Sky Without Stars by Jessica Brody & Joanne Rendell
Street-smart Chatine Renard spends her days scrounging for trinkets, or sometimes liberating them from their owners directly, and committing other crimes while dressed as a boy so that she can’t be forced to sell her blood, a nominally-legal vocation which might bring good money in the short-term but is sure to kill her within a few years. Alouette Taureau is a sweet, dangerously naïve girl brought up in near-seclusion under the watchful eyes of her kind father and the Sisters who hide belowground, protecting valuable books and other information smuggled from Earth during the Last Days, when nations fled their home planet and made their way to the twelve planets within the System Divine.
Then there’s Marcellus Bonnefaçon, who has a promising career as an officer ahead of him, regardless of his father’s banishment to the prison-moon of Bastille and his childhood governess’ involvement with a revolutionary group, but chance encounters with Chatine’s alter ego, Théo, and then with Alouette make him wonder if there’s more to life than he’s experienced. Meanwhile, the Patriarche and Matrone of planet Laterre consume great quantities of “sparkles” and laugh over sending gâteau to the starving masses who can’t afford bread, an implacable cyborg named Inspecteur Limier stalks the streets in search of criminals (and one elusive man in particular), and the poorest of the poor reach the end of their patience with the aristocrats who profit from their misery.
If any of those names sound a little familiar, that’s because Sky Without Stars (2019) is a re-skinning of Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel Les Misérables. Authors Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell have thrown some science-fiction and YA coats of paint on the setting, but the bones of Hugo’s story are clearly visible: Éponine has become Chatine, Cosette becomes Alouette, Marius becomes Marcellus, etc. Knowledge of the original source material or the wildly popular 1980 musical may, unfortunately, spoil quite a few of this novel’s plot or character reveals, but Brody and Rendell do a good job of giving a famous story an interesting setting, and I was often surprised by the ways in which the authors put that setting to work.
Laterre, as a planet, is rather like the marshlands of France writ large. It rains a lot, and there’s an omnipresent cloud cover leading to starless nights and sunless days. Societally, the people are divided into three Estates: The Third Estate is comprised of the poor and working-class, the Second Estate is made up of the middle class and military officers, and the First Estate is the ruling class of nobility. Each year, a lottery is drawn among the Third Estate, and some lucky person who’s managed to save enough Ascension points by dutifully going to their back-breaking job and staying out of police attention is given the chance to move up into the Second Estate. The only place Third Estaters are allowed to live is within the Frets, a ringed city made out of the spaceships used to travel to Laterre, cleverly echoing the arrondissements of Paris. “Honest work for an honest chance,” they’re told, as though working for nearly no pay and watching one’s children starve is its own reward while the First Estate lives luxuriously in Ledôme, a domed and climate-controlled city set upon a hill overlooking the Frets. Naturally, such an iniquity pinches, and there are rumbles of trouble brewing which bring back terrified memories of a previous attempt at revolution, and the widespread bloodshed and incarceration that ensued.
Chatine wants to get away from Laterre entirely, perhaps traveling to Usonia (in a nice nod to Frank Lloyd Wright) or Albion, or Reichenstat. Travel to another planet is incredibly expensive, however, and she is forced to take greater and greater risks in order to attempt to finance her dream and escape her miserable circumstances. Her frustration and desperation are keenly communicated to the reader, and again, Brody and Rendell update her identity in largely understandable ways. Alouette, like Cosette before her, is a clearly intelligent and good-natured person, but the extent to which she’s been sheltered from the world leads her to make the kinds of mistakes which, without direct authorial intervention, should result in far more serious and immediate consequences than she experiences. Marcellus plays the typical role of a young, privileged man who clumsily attempts to make friends among one social class while still trying to fill the expectations of another, not realizing that his loyalties can’t be divided.
Brody and Rendell did so much work throughout Sky Without Stars in changing Les Misérables’ setting in an almost-seamless way that I was hoping for equally good character work, but the insta-love triangle among those three teenagers remains laughable; they’re like a trio of baby geese, latching onto the first attractive face pointed in their direction. I had hoped for some more attention and updating for a modern readership, perhaps some stronger character development or reasoning for why these three feel such a strong and immediate attachment to one another beyond “he was kind to me” or “she has pretty eyes” or “he’s the only boy I’ve ever seen,” but it was not to be found.
The SYSTEM DIVINE series is a trilogy, according to Brody and Rendell, and I’m interested to see how the sequels progress beyond Sky Without Stars, since I originally assumed a duology was in the works. I have a lot of questions about how and why certain events happen as they do, and moreover, I’m curious to see whether Brody and Rendell will follow Victor Hugo’s path to an ending or if they’ll diverge from the formula and take subsequent books in a different direction. Regardless, the scope of their combined imaginations should delight readers, and the way this volume ends will likely leave more than a few bitten fingernails in its wake.