The Space Between the Stars, by Anne Corlett, started out promisingly enough. The story is set in a universe where humanity has colonized the stars, which sounds great, but unfortunately a devastating plague has rampaged through the planets, wiping out over 99% of our species. We learn this via our main character, Jamie, who is one of the very few to survive the virus, a literal handful on the planet Soltaire where she has been working on as a veterinarian. The novel follows her as she, joined by a few other survivors, attempts to get back to her childhood home on Earth.
Her reason for aiming for Earth is that she and her long-time lover Daniel used to always joke about meeting at Northumberland in case of a “zombie apocalypse” or other type of world-ending event, so she hopes beyond hope to find him there. The two of them split up after difficulties ensued following her miscarriage, and she ended up on her fringe planet as a means of getting herself some space to think things through. She luckily finds a ride off the planet via a trader ship whose captain (Callan) agrees to take her as far as he’s going. Soon afterward the ship has a patchwork group of survivors, including a strictly religious and often hostile woman who worked as a research scientist (Rena), the older and much more gentle former priest who has some sort of connection to her (Lowry), a young girl who worked as a prostitute (Mila) and the young boy she found who is on the autism spectrum (Finn). The novel has an episodic structure as the ship moves from place to place on its journey, having a few different types of adventures in each. Eventually it reaches a spot where the former government is trying to rebuild. From there it’s off to Earth and the episodic nature continues, just in a terrestrial vein.
As noted, The Space Between the Stars began well. Corlett does a nice job with those early scenes of panic and despair, both with Jamie and the others. The group does not mesh well, and there again the author does a good job in conveying the various personalities and alliances, as well as creating increasing tension. Callan especially is an engaging character, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of him. And the writing was often, though not always, quite good, economical when appropriate but turning nicely lyrical at times.
That isn’t to say there weren’t a few warning signs. I often liked the prose style, but every now and then it bordered on the edge (or tipped over the edge) of homily-like pronouncements. The several flashback scenes felt unnecessary and clumsy, though they were few in number and quite brief, so that wasn’t a major problem. Jamie isn’t a character that is easy to warm to (I never did) and while the tension amongst the group was well done, Rena felt a bit over the top in her religious mania and too on-the-nose in various other ways. The worldbuilding was thin, and a few actions felt highly implausible. But I was able to mostly set those aside for the first half of the book thanks to the narrative flow, the story itself, and my enjoyment of Callan’s character.
But things began to turn past the 50% point (almost exactly at that point) and went downhill from there. Rena became a chore as a character and just didn’t feel real, a major issue as she drives so much of the plot. Jamie wasn’t just often hard to warm up to but was simply often unpleasant as a person. Two big reveals felt both highly predictable/obvious way early and more than a little clichéd. The implausibility factor became worse and worse, some conversations between characters were just too hard to buy into, and the science fiction trappings felt like they were going off the rails as various backstory aspects didn’t seem to make much sense in a future where humans are traveling the stars (for instance, it’s hard to imagine people referencing “Merchant-Ivory films” or still referring to “servers” and needing to monitor them in a world where we’ve colonized numerous planets). Melodrama seemed to pile up around the characters, as if the author couldn’t trust that we’d care about a group of people and their problems unless they were “big” emotional issues. And the homily-like nature of a few lines earlier became an onrush toward the end.
The description of the book says that Corlett has published short fiction but this is a debut novel, and it would appear to me that the length simply won out over the author’s craft here. Some of it is plotting (such as revelations that were obvious hundreds of pages earlier), some of it structural (the flashbacks), some of it characterization (one can live with character flaws in a short story; they become more noticeable and more grating in a novel). Corlett clearly has writing talent, and I’d probably pick up a second novel by her depending on its premise/content, but The Space Between the Stars, though it started off with such promise, ended in a place that makes it difficult to recommend.