My judging team for the third annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC3) has scouted our entire allotment and selected seven books to be passed around the team for full evaluations by our entire complement of judges. As I read two of the seven in the scouting phase, that will mean five new reads for me personally, all books that either got thumbs up from multiple scouts or had one of my teammates really go out on a limb in favor of it. One of the latter was Stargun Messenger by Darby Harn, which really enamored Rari. And while it didn’t hit the same for me, I can certainly see the appeal.
Stargun Messenger stars Astra Idari, an android with severe memory problems and a weakness for booze. But what looks like a routine job—as far as she can remember—throws her into the middle of a large-scale conspiracy perpetrated by an implacable enemy, with a sentient star as companion (and sometimes lover) and a quest for the one object with enough power to save her.
The plot sounds like it could come straight out of a fantasy novel, with an epic quest, dark enemies, and a lot more magic than you’d expect from the sci-fi setting. But the science fiction elements are no mere window dressing, as Stargun Messenger uses the lead’s mechanical body and memory issues to delve into fascinating questions of identity and humanity. These are the elements that really shine, with Idari struggling to reconcile her feelings of personhood with her android body, and various backup copies at different stages of lived experience offering a host of potential Idaris that just don’t seem quite the same. It’s interesting enough as a thought experiment, and it provides real meat to the characterization, helping the reader identify with Idari’s plight.
I had much more trouble, however, following the plot details. The overarching points are clear enough—magic star that requires a lost object, forces of darkness in hot pursuit—but the details tended to slip through my grasp. The plot seems built around a series of big, cinematic set pieces, but without the visual component of actual cinema, I had trouble understanding how to imagine the stars and grasp what power is available to them.
Similarly, the connective tissue between the big, climactic scenes felt hard to pin down. There were obstacles along the way, the obstacles would be overcome, and I wasn’t quite sure how it had all happened. In particular, I struggled to parse some of the navigation and the star backstory. And while I was invested in Idari’s internal struggles, the whirlwind romance with her stellar companion happened so quickly that I never quite hit the level of real investment in the interpersonal elements that made up so much of the plot.
On a sentence level, Stargun Messenger is very well-written, and it uses the android protagonist and limitations of memory to tell a compelling personal story and ask some fascinating questions about identity and personhood. Unfortunately, I found much of the external plot more difficult to grasp, with a whirlwind romance and a plot that careened back and forth between confrontations with the dark forces trying to seize and exploit the star magic. That made for an uneven reading experience, with some quality subplots undercut by a main plot that didn’t sustain my immersion.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Self-Published and Features Robots. It also features a Queernorm Setting.
Overall rating: 10 of Tar Vol’s 20. Two stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC score: 5/10 for my personal score. The official team score will be determined in concert with my teammates.