Ignite the Stars | Maura Milan
When the Commonwealth finally captures the notorious criminal Ia Cocha, they’re shocked to discover that she is a 17-year-old girl. Instead of imprisoning her, General Adams corners Ia into enrolling in the elite Star Force Military Academy, located on a hidden base. Cocha bides her time, planning to escape and return to fight for the Tawny people that the Commonwealth have displaced in their imperialist missions.
She was seventeen, and her life was about to end
This book has an exciting premise, throw in some colonial conflict and a mystery surrounding interstellar gates and it’s got the skeleton of a good sci-fi book. It just doesn’t have much meat. The world building is fine, but scratch the surface and you find lots of questions, the characters are lacking and there are some narrative points that really frustrated me. Also, this book also suffers from faux swearing syndrome (‘mif’, ‘mung’, ‘mungbringer’) which doesn’t help the case – the rest of the sci-fi language, like referring to space as the All Black, is great, but bad swearing is always bad.
I’m going to get all spoilery today so here’s your warning before we continue!
The biggest fault in this book is how much time Milan spends telling rather than showing. It felt not only that we were told things, but that on the odd occasion Milan chose to include something in dialogue, it was followed by an unnecessary breakdown of what we just read. As a result, bar the main characters who fare better, I didn’t feel like a proper cast was built and that the relationships between them don’t feel real.
Ia Cocha: we are told that she is a badass with nicknames such as ‘Blood Wolf of the Skies’ and it took me a long while to believe that. Ia is the one example where I felt there is a balance between how much show versus tell we get. I wouldn’t stretch it as far to say I was convinced that she was scariest criminal in all the Commonwealth because we didn’t see any of her exploits but her character feels the most fleshed out.
She scratched her head. Well, then, she would have to cut someone’s finger off.
Everyone had started to inch back, trying to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the most wanted criminal in all the Commonwealth
Brinn: half-Tawny and ashamed of it, from dying her navy blue hair brown to desperately trying to prove that she is patriotic by joining the Star Force. She develops as a character, becoming proud of her mixed heritage and befriending Ia. However we are simply told what her character traits are from being intelligent to having never failed anything before.
Knives: the 19-year-old son of General Adams and Flight Master who has lost faith in the system after the death of his sister. He is supposed to be a caramel chocolate; soft and sensitive underneath the harsh broodiness. Perhaps it’s my age showing, but I was not convinced that he was desirable. There’s one part in particular where he goes to a bar, and begins to flirt with the barmaid and I just hope to god that this is poking fun at the character and not what Milan thinks flirting is
He flashed her a grin, staring at her long enough to see the blush creep onto her face. He could have stayed there the whole night, flirting with her.
Other characters are cardboard cutouts. We see Brinns’s romantic interest, Liam, who is nice to her I guess? Brinn’s friend Angie goes from being a mean girl to becoming Brinn’s friend but the change feels jarring between chapters. Near the climax of the book, one of the cadets, Cammo, dies. ‘Cammo was gone. Easygoing, joke-cracking, endlessly enthusiastic Cammo.’ and I felt approximately zilch because up until that point, we hadn’t seen much of this character at all. Overall where there is some individual MC development, the rest are underdeveloped and we don’t see them interact with the rest of the cast to a degree to which the reader could feel like they care enough about them.
Plotwise, there is some potential towards the end of the book with mentions of secret mathematical formulas and hints towards a larger plot regarding Tawny intelligence and interstellar gates. Although it’s problematic to suggest that there is a race-based difference in intelligence in this world, regardless of whether the script has been flipped, there is a very topical analogy made in the form of the navy-haired Tawnies. They are simultaneously being made into refugees by the Commonwealth’s colonisation projects as well as being demonised as terrorists. Also, I’m sure a lot of readers with mixed heritages can relate to Brinn’s conflict and internalised shame about her heritage too.
I had issues with some major and some minor plot points. It is formulaic in parts; the obvious enemies to lovers trope and Ia’s eventual conflict between choosing her brother or the Star Force. For the former, Ia doesn’t initially realise that Knives is General Adams’ son allowing her to fall for him. My question is: how did he manage to keep this secret long enough for her to develop any feelings for him? Don’t they share a surname? Isn’t the military known for utilising surnames?
For the latter, a huge plot point that frustrated me is that Ia chooses to go back with the Star Force because she is betrayed by her brother, Einn. This betrayal seemed to serve one purpose: to make Ia’s choice easier and it felt like a terrible narrative decision. Firstly, the betrayal doesn’t feel impactful enough: very little is established about the nature of Einn and Ia’s relationship. Secondly, the reason for his betrayal is full of holes: Einn feels like he is owed something from their father – before leaving them, their father leaves Ia a family heirloom. There’s got to be a LOT more resentment than just that instance to allow Einn to spend years pretending to love Ia. Einn has also secretly been using Tawnies for their brain power to the point of death which comes a little out of the blue. Finally, the Commonwealth are still gunning down Tawnies and the narrative almost forgets this.
I really wanted to like this book. It’s my first novel for #YARC2019 and the last time I read a modern SF story set in space was back in October. (It is also bad luck that that book was Skyward which was fantastic and I couldn’t help but sometimes compare the two.) This feels terrible to say but it really feels like the book needed one more thorough edit. The bare bones of the story is fine, if a little formulaic but if you’re going to follow a formula, it better hold up to those already in the same genre. Apparently, the original blurb of the book described it as ‘Throne of Glass in space’ and had I seen that, I would have run in the opposite direction. Ia is a much more realistic threat than Celaena but I can see the similarities. Suffice to say, I won’t be reading the next book in the series.