Just when you think there cannot be another visceral, engaging, page-turning new voice in space opera, along comes These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs. Set a couple of thousand years post generation ships arriving somewhere, These Burning Stars takes some familiar elements, mixes them up, tells its story through some flawed but fascinating POV characters, and fleshes out a complex universe that readers are likely to want to come back to for the sequels.
The opening chapter of These Burning Stars feels somewhat familiar. Esek Nightfoot, the graduate of some form of intense academy returns at the request of one of the masters to view one his students. That student, known only as Six, turns out to be the descendant of a man who committed genocide. Rather than taking her on as an apprentice, Esek spurns Six and says she will only see her when she can do something impressive. Despite this setup, These Burning Stars is not an “academy” novel. Jacobs then jumps the story forward twenty years. The main action surrounds the pursuit of a valuable McGuffin (a memory coin), which could bring down the Nightfoot family. Esek and her old offsider Chono are hunting down a con artist called Sunstep who is also after the coin, but both believe that Six, who it turns out has been tormenting Esek for years, is behind the scenes. As this plot plays out, Jacobs continually jumps back in time to chart Esek’s pursuit of Six over the previous twenty years.
Talking any more about the plot would give away some of the surprises and reveals. But suffice to say, Jacobs has a great handle on characters and the action that they often find themselves in. She also slowly but deliberately builds a vibrant, diverse and corrupt universe in which to set that action. While this is essentially “science fiction”, there is a bit of hand waving around some of the science but no more so than many other recent space operas. Readers just have to accept memory coin technology or jump gates between solar systems that require a particular type of mineral (or its substitute) or artificial limbs.
It feels like we are in a new golden age of this type of character driven, fast paced but grand space opera. Led by authors like Ann Leckie, James SA Corey and John Scalzi and more recently authors like Yoon Ha Lee, Megan O’Keefe and Arkady Martine. With These Burning Stars Bethany Jacobs stakes a strong claim for a seat at this table. In These Burning Stars Jacobs delivers a whole story but has created a big enough universe, laid plenty of breadcrumbs and created fascinating characters and left a dangling cliffhanger that makes it likely that readers will be more than willing to go in whatever direction this series goes next.