Gird your loins and adjust your expectations as necessary, because this is going to end up more as a review of Christopher Paolini than a review of his new book. I’ll start with something positive: take a look at that cover, and bask in its gorgeousness for a moment. Seriously, stare at it for a while; it’s probably the best thing about the book.
Now, understand this: Stars is eight hundred and twenty-five pages of story with another 53 pages of (utterly unnecessary) appendices, a glossary, a timeline, and author’s notes tacked onto the end. It is a massive book.
And the spine, which Amazon tells me is 1.74 inches wide, features the word PAOLINI on it in the largest font possible and nothing else other than the publisher’s mark.
I have thousands of books. Thousands. Books by people far more important and far more successful than Christopher Paolini. This is the only book I own that does not have the name of the book on the spine.
If I had bought the book from a bookstore, I very well might have put it back on the shelf, because this offends me to a degree that I’m honestly kind of surprised by. Before you even open the book, you know the main thing you need to know: Christopher Paolini is super fucking important.
This is, in case you don’t know, the guy behind the “Inheritance Cycle,” the series of books that started with Eragon and got longer and shittier with each successive book. I liked Eragon a lot when I read it the first time and by the end of the series I was completely done with it. And then Paolini didn’t release another book for, like, nine years until this one appeared on the shelves. I admit it; I bought it because I was morbidly curious about it.
Okay. I’m going to dial back a bit now. I three-starred this book on Goodreads. It’s not terrible. I’ve read a good number of objectively worse books this year. And I generally don’t write reviews of books I didn’t like. But To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is annoying in such a specific way that I couldn’t pass it up: this is the most arrogant book I’ve ever read, and the arrogance is so utterly unearned that it’s kind of shocking. A lot of Eragon’s sins got forgiven because Paolini was nineteen when the book came out and he’d started writing it at fifteen. That was, like, the guy’s entire hook— that he was super young and yet he’d written this big ol’ book. But I was convinced he was bored with the setting by the time that series ended, and the afterword to this book more or less completely confirms that suspicion. And by now, there’s no reason to cut him any slack any longer, as he’s a grown-ass man writing what is supposed to be a grown-ass book for grown-ass audiences.
Here’s the plot of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars: It’s the future. Kira, a boring woman, accidentally becomes Venom, and then there are aliens. Paolini writes action and fight scenes fairly well, and the entire book feels like a video game, right down to a big boss fight at the end and level-ups and additions to her powers over the course of the story. Did you play either of the Prototype games? Because I bet Christopher Paolini did.
The whole first half of the book is spent in search of a magical MacGuffin, and then they find it– spoiler alert, I suppose– but it’s broken, and then they basically never mention it again.
The name of the book is To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. Guess what the last seven words of the book are. Go ahead, guess. This is already the title you’d give to a fictional book if you wanted to get the idea across that the author was a bit of a wanker, and then the title is literally the last seven words of the book.
A bunch of the chapter names are in Latin, for no reason. The book is divided into six parts, and each part is also named in Latin, for no reason. Several chapter titles are repeated, for no reason. In the afterword, the author instructs you to look at the chapter titles for “some acrostic fun,” at which point I discovered that the titles of the chapters for some, but not all, of the sections are an acrostic for the first word of the first chapter’s name. Again, for no reason, and Paolini is proud enough of this bit of nonsense that he makes sure to point it out so that you notice how clever he is.
The aliens communicate through scent, which is actually kind of clever, and those scents contain markers for the name of the speaker, which is also kind of clever, because you can imagine the without such a thing being in a room with a bunch of aliens who were speaking would be … complicated. But it means that every bit of alien dialogue looks like this:
<Kira here: I am talking.>
<Alien here: I am talking too.>
<Kira here: I am replying to what you said.>
<There’s only two of us in this conversation, so this is the alien here again: I am replying to your reply.>
Every so often the human characters converse via text message. Every text message is signed.
<hello I would like to fuck. –Kira>
<I too would enjoy fucking. –Bill>
<When should we fuck? –Kira>
<Hey, a description of what happens when you try to masturbate might be cool. Also, use the phrase “inner parts” to refer to your vagina at some point. You’re being written by a man, it’s okay. –Bill>
There’s also the occasional rogue sentence that gets through that feels like it was written by a fifth-grader, or a weird parenthetical that any editor in the universe would have removed. Again, this dude hasn’t earned this. We all know Stephen King and George R.R. Martin aren’t getting edited all that damn much. The Inheritance books made a pretty good pile of money, and they had a painful flop of a movie made. But they weren’t so successful that, especially most of a decade later, this guy’s book should have been ignored by an editor like this.
It’s just … gah, it’s not terrible, I mean, I finished the damn thing, but it’s the Christopher Paoliniest thing Christopher Paolini could possibly have ever written, and I’m okay with being done with him now. There was a spark in Eragon that was extinguished by the time whatever the fourth book in the trilogy was came out. And there have definitely been examples– this year, even– of books I didn’t much like by authors whose future work I’m going to keep buying because of potential. But at this point I’ve got to be done with this guy.