Updated: Jan 28
Title: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
Author: Christopher Paolini
Publisher: Macmillan Publishers
Year: 15 September 2020
Genre: Science Fiction
Type: Spoiler-Free Review
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ (1 Star)
Nearly nine years after the publication of his last novel, Inheritance, the last instalment of a four-part saga that began with Eragon all the way back in 2003, Christopher Paolini is back, this time with a single-volume, science fiction saga, which comes in at a whopping 878 pages.
Naturally, those persons who held a measure of affection for his former stories (however maligned they might have been by the press and various critics) have eagerly awaited this intriguing new title, published under the tantalising name, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, for quite some time now.
I am no different, and with the exception of Brandon Sanderson's Rhythm of War (itself of which proved to be yet another very solid addition to the Cosmere), To Sleep was my most anticipated novel of 2020.
309,000 words later, imagine my severe disappointment when I must report it to be perhaps the worst novel I have read in recent memory (with the exception of Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, which proved itself to be so bad, that I could not even force myself to finish it).
To be sure, there are certainly signs of brilliance every here and there (specifically very early on), but regrettably, such signs are few and far between. The story is channelled much more through the plot than through the ensemble cast, which takes much of the heart out of the story. Interestingly enough, this is exactly what made the Inheritance Cycle so appealing to its audience: despite the derivative nature of its story, there were still characters that people cared about, possessed of qualities and shortcomings that made it almost inevitable that people root for them.
To name what is perhaps my greatest issue, there is almost nothing of worth regarding the moral dilemma or quandary (as was formerly seen in Eragon's decision in Brisingr to spare the life of Sloan the Butcher).
As I have grown older, I have found it increasingly hard to enjoy any story which does not feature something of the former. And in a story almost completely bereft of nuance or meaning, there's simply not much to anything firm I can grasp onto with the knowledge that such an attribute can safely carry me through to the end, regardless of what deficiencies it might otherwise possess – something that is an absolute necessity in a story of this magnitude and scope.
This, again, is something which noted epic fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has masterfully executed time and time again, virtually without fail.
To add insult to injury, Paolini hasn't seemed to learn his lesson from Brisingr (if possible, actually regressing) – namely, that less is more.
Rather than learning from his past, he has instead adopted that trend so often seen in today's fiction, whereby quantity usurps quality: that, put simply, more of this and more of that, and bigger and grander explosions, and higher levels of intimacy, and deeper valleys of violence, and more coarseness of language and thought somehow equivocates with quality, when such a thing could not be further from the truth!
Maybe a season reading such classic works as Austen's Pride and Prejudice or Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment would do him a turn for the better. Maybe it is possible he would see that stories are interesting precisely due to the intricacies of human character, the moral dilemmas we are confronted with every day, the tension between the right and the wrong, and the consequences of bad behaviour, or an ill choice (and how different people react to that, accordingly, whether progressively or regressively).
But, sadly, as has been already reported, every time an opportunity arose for the author to do right by those seemly modes most favourable to the common reader, he squandered it by either overindulging himself in the emotion of the moment or passed it by with only a cursory glance.
Even the climactic sequence, which has always been a strength of his in the past, proved itself to be utterly incompetent and wholly incapable of redeeming the preceding 800+ pages. To best sum up my thoughts on this point, it is the words of a critic from The Boston Globe in regards to Paolini's second novel, Eldest, which perhaps best capture the nature of the climax, wherein she negatively criticized him for "[writing] drama that rises to a wet pop".
I may have found cause to differ with the critic then, but now, I must concur her to be right on all points, only I would add that the aforementioned drama is almost impossible to perceive this time around, and rarely has anything been as anticlimactic.
Another major deficiency happens to be Paolini's prose, which has, strangely, worsened. His dialogue, which was already weak (in comparison to his narrative summary and description), was easier to ignore, at first, due to his decision to completely change his writing style for the contemporary age in which his story is set.
But as the story progressed, that same dialogue (which has always been my favourite attribute of any story) steadily deteriorated, to the point that it became borderline unreadable for me. Part of the problem is that, since this is a story set in an advanced society, equivalent to modern-day America, Paolini appears to think it is his duty to include an expletive every other paragraph, which really made me consider setting the book aside, at one point (I do not recommend it for those wishing to make progress in their daily sanctification).
The other factor involved is that he earnestly endeavours to sound as realistic as possible, which only serves to make the words his characters use, come across as very cringe-worthy and altogether without elegance or nuance. I must add that the decision to use text messaging as a regular means of communication did not at all help the matter.
The majestic illustrative ability he harnessed in supplying his audience with a sense of place – which so acutely defined scenes like that on Vroengard Island in Inheritance – has almost completely disappeared. Indeed, there are occasions where it briefly resurfaces, but those are wholly contained to a series of dream sequences that periodically take place throughout the novel, and not for any great length.
On the measure of its own merit, Part One, along with sections of Part Five, was undoubtedly the best part of the book; and very promising for what was to come, but, alas! with the passing of that chapter, everything experienced a severe downgrade in the areas of character development, plot pacing, quality of prose, intrigue, suspense, the anticipation of what has not yet come to pass, and all the like.
Having said this, I cannot recommend To Sleep in a Sea of Stars as a worthy read for those who might be disposed to give it their attention. This assessment is quite unfortunate, as this was a novel I was very much looking forward to this past year.
In light of 2018's The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm (which, while not perfect, was vastly superior to his sci-fi endeavour), it is my opinion that if Paolini wishes to avoid the disastrous outing that was this space-faring chronicle, he is much better served by staying safely within the realm of epic fantasy.
That, and maybe take some lessons from Brandon Sanderson. He could use them.