The Ascendant Stars by Michael Cobley

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The Ascendant Stars by Michael Cobley

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Definitely not the way into Humanity's Fire - but a pretty decent finale to a well envisaged and robustly executed battle for the future of sentience throughout the the galaxies.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 591 Date: August 2012
Publisher: Orbit
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781841496368

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Space Opera has never been in more capable hands is the Guardian quote that concludes the blurb for this, Cobley's wrap up part of the Humanity's Fire trilogy that started with Seeds of Earth and continued through The Orphaned Worlds. It's hard to disagree, but it's also hard to get away – on this evidence – from the fact that Space Opera might be closer to Soap than Classical, when it comes to opera classification.

Lots of characters, lots of drama, lots of Sturm und Drang... but also lots of confusion and so many characters that you can't figure out who's who, and how they were related to whom, and when, and what their allegiance was several episodes back.

There is a danger that this review might become equally confused.

In many respects, Ascendant Stars is utterly brilliant.

In others, it left me lost.

Put it this way: if the author feels the need to fill you in before you start, you know you're in the wrong place. There is a ten-page synopsis of what has gone before (magnificent attempt at avoiding spoilers, but let's face it, it has to be done if the pre-amble is to make any sense); two pages give us the fourteen main characters; two and a bit more give us the twenty main sentient species.

A twelve-page prologue gets us back into the mindset.... and then we can start catching up with what everyone is up to.

Let's be fair though! In my review of book two I lamented the lack of this scene-setting. I can hardly complain when I'm given it. OMG – does this mean that publishers and /or authors really care what I think?

In keeping with the style of the first two books, Cobley continues to switch his viewpoint among a few of the main characters to enable the reader to skip about the galaxy and back and fore in time. It's a mechanism that sometimes grates, but it is hard to think of a better one for conveying what is happening to several key people light years apart at the same time, whilst allowing each of the strands to play out with full dramatic impact.

On the downside, it does mean that you have to concentrate to hold the causation time-lines in your head. For that reason alone it's not a book to be skimmed, but one to be indulged in, when you have time to read large chunks at a sitting.

For those who want to know about plot and setting...

Darien is an outpost plane where fleeing humans have settled peaceably with the native Uvovo. It's main moon is a forest idyll, home of Segrana, the universal forest spirit, and habitable by many of the warring species.

Both are still at the centre of the intergalactic war that is threatening to obliterate not just all civilisation but potentially all life-as-we-know it.

On one side there is the Construct – an Artificial Intelligence with a millennial old mission to protect sentient species. On the other are the Avatars, machines with a Borg-like collective mind set on destruction of all organic life.

Somewhere in amongst all of this is the godhead. Who or what the godhead is, and upon which side (if any) it sits is at the heart of the story.

I've no idea whether it is a notion the author had in mind, but if you look at the wars and battles of the last millennium on earth, does God take sides is a question that warrants the asking – given that mostly all sides were invoking the same godhead in their defence.

If there is a point to Sci-fi – and there doesn't need to be, any more than for any other genre of fiction – but if there is, then this is it. Look upon this, and THINK!

Or maybe I read too deeply. Maybe, Cobley has simply constructed one of the most complicated war scenarios I have ever tried to get my head around purely to give him the excuse for the finale. I couldn't blame him.

It is one hell of a finale!

A human bonded with a forest sentience, who is partially overtaken by another more ancient organic being, machines, AIs who are both more and/or less than machines, human sentiences temporarily and / or (perhaps) permanently uploaded into cyber-beings whilst their bodies are (or are not) kept alive elsewhere are just some of the heroes involved. Others include ordinary people – both human and non-human – just doing what physics allows them to do with the bodies they were born with and the unique personalities that fate has allowed them to accrue.

Throw in the peculiarities of Darien. Multi-dimensional universes akin to Dante's circles of hell. Lots of hi-tech gizmos. And you end up with one hell of a fire-fight.

Which not everyone will survive.

But which might, maybe, allow good to triumph over evil.

For now.

According to the rules of narrative imperative.

Before you get there however, you will be made to care about some of those individuals involved. This is where Cobley excels. Despite the vast scope and sweeping narrative, he does keep bringing you back to the personal, to the individual. You keep getting snippets of Scots wit or Chinese wisdom (or vice versa). There are threads of lost loves left like spindrift in space. Honour. Betrayal. Fear. Hope. And one or two folk doing stuff just for the hell of it.

This is why I think the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts. In between books, I've lost touch with these people. If I'd stayed in touch, followed the story without the gaps, I suspect I'd be rating higher.

Should you read it?

If you've followed the story this far, then yes – do see it out. You won't be disappointed.

If you haven't read the first two – don't start from here. Humanity's Fire is a properly conceived trilogy in the old-fashioned sense. None of the books really stand alone. In fact, if you haven't read any of them, you're probably in a more fortunate position than those of us who have had to wait for the next thrilling instalment. Read consecutively, as a time-unlimited-continuum, I suspect that the whole works better than the sum of its parts.

On which note, just in case anyone has their eye on the filming rights, can I put in a plea for a several-series TV production to do it full justice rather than trying to cram it all in to a single two hour film... unless Peter Jackson is looking for his next extended project...?!

It's easier to recommend the whole than any individual book of it.

In an earlier review I said that Cobley was no Tolkien. He isn't. Not by a wide margin. But he tells a rip-roaring tale that has some universal truths and enduring questions buried within it. Like Tolkien however, it doesn't really make much sense to analyse one book outside of the context of the others.

I wouldn't really recommend that you read Ascendant Stars any more than I'd suggest you go read Return of the King. You could do worse, however, than devote a few weeks of your reading time to the whole of Humanity's Fire.

If you think you'd like this then start with Seeds of Earth. For other space adventures, I still rate Iain M Banks among the modern greats. Try Matter

Buy The Ascendant Stars by Michael Cobley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Ascendant Stars by Michael Cobley at

Buy The Ascendant Stars by Michael Cobley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Ascendant Stars by Michael Cobley at


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