Today I am delighted to be reviewing an ARC of Stellar Instinct by Jonathan Nevair, which is out in the world on the 1st of December (so there is still time to sneak in that pre-order!).
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
A secret agent. A gaming mastermind. Two players in a dangerous competition blurring the boundaries of entertainment and reality.
Mysterious signals pulse from an icy planet in a remote star system. GAM-OPs wants answers. Enter Lilline Renault, secret agent extraordinaire. To ordinary citizens she’s Keely Larkin, an adventure company guide with a flair for the daring and a penchant for writing trite poetry. Lilline’s at the top of the spy game, but publishing her literary work is proving harder than saving the galaxy.
When the mission uncovers a dastardly plan threatening billions of lives, Lilline leaps into action. Verses flow as she rockets through space, dons cunning disguises, and infiltrates enemy territory with an arsenal of secret gadgets. But to prevent the whims of a self-obsessed entrepreneur from turning the galaxy into a deadly playground means beating him at his own game. Lilline will need her best weapon to stand a fighting chance: her instinct.
STELLAR INSTINCT: A spy-fi thriller set in space.
I will readily admit that I much more of a fantasy reader than a SF one, however, with the Wind Tide trilogy Nevair had become a must-read sci-fi writer for me and I have been waiting for Stellar Instinct since it was first mentioned. I was excited for what was termed a spy-fi thriller, and to see Nevair’s take on this subgenre – and it was glorious, and so much fun to read!!
One of my favourite aspects of Nevair’s writing has always been his characterisation, and for all the thrilling action in Stellar Instinct, this was very much a character-focused story, and as always, he has created characters that are in equal part living, breathing characters but also compelling superstars in their own stories. Also, I adored that one of the main relationships that was so central to both the main character on a personal level but also to the story as whole, was that of granddaughter and grandmother. It was a dynamic that I don’t think I’ve read very often, and certainly not how Nevair has done it here – and I want a Granny like Kissy. Meanwhile Lilline was absolutely Steller (yes I punned badly) main character, and I loved the dichotomy between her role as a highly experienced and talented secret agent and struggling writer. I also liked that her skills and ability to get through the events was very much built up on experience and previous failings, and that even at the top of her game, there were mistakes to make; it made for a very human top-secret agent and helped intensify the stakes.
‘Was it a blessing or a curse? Looking around the room, Lilline wasn’t sure. All eyes were lowered, per usual the signal that none wanted to contribute to her growing, near-perpetual, pile of poetic corpses stacked up from cycles of slash and burn criticism.’
While Lilline (and her badass Granny) was undoubtedly the star of the show, the other characters were just as compelling in their own way. Lauden was absolutely a favourite, filling the classic ‘director’ role, he gave the impression of being a fascinating mix of the old and a guard on the future, his interactions with Lilline and his other subordinates were some of my favourites. I also really liked Carbook, and that dynamic of young techie lose in the field and working with older more experienced agents, although his assistant Pin was another one who stole the show for all that she was incredibly direct and didn’t get as much page-time as some of the others, but it left me wanting to spend more time with her so I’m classing that as a win! Nave was fascinating in his own way, especially as a study of what extremes in emotion and focus can achieve, and how far-reaching the need for revenge can be and how destructive.
The worldbuilding is by necessity a little sparser because of the focus on the ‘mission’ and the fast pace, particularly as that countdown wound down. However, Nevair manged to create an interesting and varied universe within those limitations, without slowing down the action or the story, and giving us the impression that what we were seeing was a snapshot and that if you stepped out of the boundaries of the story you would find a universe with great breadth and depth. Part of that brings us back to the excellent characterisation, as not only was Lilline our pov and therefore our introduction to the various locales that she found herself in, and the fauna that she found herself face to face with on more than one occasion; but the other characters were our introduction to the various races that inhabit this new universe Nevair has gifted us with. And we get so much through the little details of the different physiologies, and behaviours, and little offshoots of information about their homeworlds or past, and interactions with others, that you found yourself building up a multi-layered view of them and the world with limited details.
‘The city of Hikesh lay like a string of jewels on green velvet. Once the sun rose, the curving sliver of land cut into the slopes of Yu-Shek, the looming volcano, would gleam over an endless jungle.‘
This in turn was paired with some beautiful descriptions really helped to bring the most important settings to life, while giving us the shape and feel of the wider universe. (Also I have to add that my inner geographer was incredibly happy about Frebu). This care to establish the universe added to the overall impact of the story itself as well, because we were invested not just in the characters, but the world through them, and therefore the stakes held weight.
There was a subtlety to this book that is often missing from thrillers. Yes, there were the core elements of the rising threat and increasing stakes, the feeling of sand running through glass as the pace accelerated, and all the twists and turns of a mystery and the betrayals and jack-knifed paths that I always associate with a thriller, and Nevair does those elements beautifully, and I was on the edge of my seat for the action seats and kept on my toes with trying to work out what was going on. But what was impressive, especially in retrospect is the foreshadowing and hints that are layered without, and the way each one, comes into play at the end – even ones that seem tangential to the main story line have a meaning and a purpose, with understanding sometimes coming right at the end of the book
“Modified Cinquain, in the Zeret style.” Granny sipped her tea. “Quite the coincidence.”
I’ve often felt with thrillers that some of the threads, hints that weren’t meant to go anywhere and some of the emotional ones are lost in the chase and the drama of the conclusion. That very much wasn’t the case here, and I have to say it is the most satisfied I’ve been from reading a thriller for some time.
“Yes, they are both equally a part of everything. Balance must be achieved.” It expresses the answer to your unspoken question as it fades from sight. “Remember that. It is my parting gift.”
I think part of the reason for that, and what I really loved about Stellar Instinct – and what really impressed me in how well it worked – is that Nevair managed to remain true to the linguistic and almost philosophical elements that were woven throughout his debut trilogy and were such a strong feature of his work, while combing that with a very different subgenre that demands action and fast pacing. It’s a matchup that might have failed in any other hands, but here it not only works but works BEAUTIFULLY and I think it is that different element, and the fact that it demands not only the focus and thoughts of the character but the reader, that makes it so compelling. It makes you not only pay attention, but to think, to work through more than the hints and puzzles of a simple thriller; and it gives you answers that are fascinating and which propel the story through and made for an engrossing dynamic.
My one and only reservation with Stellar Instinct, was the chapters that were in second person (and I must stress there was less than a handful!). Now, I very much think that this was a personal preference on my part, more than anything else, but I found those chapters much more difficult to read. And it threw me out of the flow of the story – and it was the same on a second read through, although considering how swiftly each following chapter managed to pull me back into the story, I must stress that it was not a deal breaker on any level. Another reason for that, is that even though I was not necessarily a fan of those chapters, I could absolutely understand why they were used, and it was an incredibly effective way of highlighting that those scenes were something ‘beyond’ reality, and I must admit that I’m not sure it could have been done more effectively. I must also say it’s a POV that I’ve rarely read, and I certainly intend to revisit this book again in the near future once I’ve fully chewed over it and see how that effects my view of those chapters.
Stellar Instinct was very much a read that took me by surprise. I knew that I was going to enjoy because I had faith in Nevair’s writing and his ability to create characters that I am heavily invested in, and that was certainly true, and I was excited to see him turn his hand to a thriller. I was not prepared for just how invested I ended up with not just the overarching story, but all the minutiae, but I found myself having to start an immediate reread just to savour all the little details and particularly the more thought-provoking aspects. If you’re looking for a sci-fi thriller with compelling characters, lots of action and something a little different that you can really sink your teeth in, then Stellar Instinct is a book that you should be picking up!
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.