I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of shows with this basic premise: several individuals, each with their own secrets and special skills, end up together (in this case, on a spaceship) and must bond with each other so they can outwit and overpower the evil enemy that’s chasing them. That’s what’s happening in S.K. Dunstall’s version of this classic storyline in Stars Uncharted (2018).
There’s Nika Rik Terri, a famous body modder (think artistic genetic engineer) who is trying to hide from the criminal organization her ex-boyfriend belongs to. There’s Snow, a young body modder who gets swept up in Nika’s adventure without recognizing Nika as his idol. There’s Josune Arriola, an engineer, spy, and darn good fighter who is trying to find the location of a deposit of extremely valuable elements. There’s a famous cook who’s on the run because he’s wanted for murder. The spaceship that all these folks end up on is owned and captained by Hammond Roystan, a man who — surprise, surprise! — has his own secrets.
S.K. Dunstall is the penname of two sisters who write science fiction together. They’ve created some appealing characters in Stars Uncharted. I can’t say I loved any of them, or that they’re all well-developed (some are and some aren’t) but I did enjoy spending some time with them on Roystan’s ship. Some sweet relationships form and I found myself hoping that these people would survive, thrive, defeat the bad guys, and maybe even stick together after the story ends.
Stars Uncharted is a pleasant diversion that has a few minor problems. First is the unoriginality of the basic premise — I’ve just seen this too many times before. I think Stars Uncharted is supposed to have a Firefly kind of feel, but I could feel it trying to be like Firefly. Another issue is that the plot relies too much on some smart characters doing dumb things. The way that Nika, a brilliant creative scientist and artist, dealt with a thug at the beginning of the story (and, therefore, is now on the run) seemed improbable to me.
The story also relies too much on body modification (a fairly stale SF idea) as its main science fiction element — there’s a lot of talk about the coolness of body modification and not much else. Relatedly, the mechanics of spaceship flight didn’t feel real at all. Lastly, the revealing, at the end, of all of the characters’ secrets felt contrived and kind of hokey. But still, I was entertained by Stars Uncharted, and it’s nicely written. I think a lot of people will love it, perhaps especially those who don’t normally read a lot of science fiction.
It’s not clear if there will be a sequel to Stars Uncharted. If one shows up, I might read it and I might not — I could go either way. The audio version produced by Penguin Audio is narrated by Emily Woo Zeller. She’s really good and I’d recommend this version. It’s 13 hours long, though I sped it up a bit, as I always do.
Stars Uncharted is a breezy, fast-paced space opera adventure. A motley space ship crew and a few desperate passengers are running for their lives from an evil mafia-like corporation, careening wildly from one near-disaster to the next. What it lacks in substance, it at least in part makes up for with an engaging plot and high octane escapades.
Nika Rik Terri, the top body modification artist (body modder) in this area of space, is forced to use her genemod machines to heal and disguise assassins and operatives of the Eaglehawk Company. When their top assassin threatens her life, Nika goes on the run, pulling another, younger body modder, Bertram Snowshoe, along in her wake. Josune Arriola is an engineer who’s been sent by the captain of another ship, the Hassim, to spy on the captain of The Road, who may have secret information about a planet with priceless minerals. The Hassim is late to reconnect with Josune … and when the ship finally appears out of nullspace (think: hyperspace) next to The Road, its crew is dead and unknown paramilitary operatives are in control of it. But the digital memory of Hassim is also immensely valuable ― enough that deadly forces are soon pursuing The Road and its crew.
Nika and Josune, whose paths soon merge, provide the two points of view in Stars Uncharted, usually in alternating chapters. As Kat points out, pretty much everyone on board the spaceship The Road to the Goberlings has a secret or a past that they’re trying to escape … or both. That’s a lot of secrets to juggle. The characters are engaging ― other than the villains, who are unremittingly villainous ― but are by and large recognizable types.
The technology in Stars Uncharted is also light and fluffy, reliant on distinctly handwavy pseudo-science. One of the focal points of the plot is the search for a mother lode of a fictional rare element called dellarine with near-magical powers. I was forcefully reminded of vibranium from the Marvel comics and Black Panther film. Another key plot element involves Nika’s pair of body modification machines that, it is disclosed in the first chapter, can switch minds between two people for 24 hours, after which the minds automatically switch back. Why? How? It’s never discussed at all. When Dunstall does get into the details of body modification, which combine both artistic and scientific components, it’s actually quite interesting, though it still requires a hefty suspension of disbelief.
On the plus side, Stars Uncharted ― again, rather like a Marvel superhero movie ― was a fun, exciting ride and kept me glued to my couch, eyes on my iPad, when I really should have been doing other more important things like, say, working on a lesson I had to give the next day. I have to give this novel credit for keeping me up until 2 a.m.!