The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams

I would like to thank Simon & Schuster for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Simon and Schuster

Published – Out Now

Price - £8.99

A century ago, a mysterious pulse of energy spread across the universe. Meant to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, it instead destroyed technology indiscriminately, leaving some worlds untouched and throwing others into total chaos

The Justified, a mysterious group of super-soldiers, have spent a hundred years trying to find a way to restore order to the universe. Their greatest asset is the feared mercenary Kamali, who travels from planet to planet searching for gifted young people and bringing them to the secret world she calls home. Kamali hopes that those she rescues will be able to find a way to reverse the damage the pulse wreaked and ensure that it never returns.

But Kamali isn’t the only person looking for answers to unimaginable questions. And when her mission to rescue a grumpy teenage girl named Esa goes off the rails, Kamali suddenly finds herself smack in the centre of an intergalactic war…that she started.

Space opera ah I love it when it feels right.  For me that should be a sense of epic – giant scale and characters you want to explore the universe with.  A lot of people discussing paragraphs of humourless infodumps really tends to make me sleepy. Drew Williams happily brings a very refreshing frenetic look at space opera where those two things I’m always looking for were well balanced and it is a story very hard to stop reading to find out what happens next.

Our story is set in a galaxy that was hit by a truly epic disaster.  A mysterious moment known as the Pulse over a hundred years ago spread across the cosmos attacking all forms of energy. Planets were kicked downwards from super hi tech to varying degrees of rougher technology including some where feudalism has taken hold once again. It hasn’t brought the various civilizations together and instead we see factions known as sects battling to bring their vision for the universe for all be that utopia or fascism.

In this our narrator known as Kamali arrives to perform one of her routine missions for the sect known as the Justified. They seek children with powers such as controlling gravity or telekinesis. She has detected a young teen called Esa who seems to match the criteria.  But once they arrive, they find a rival group known as the Pax has also arrived and in contrast to Kamali’s subtle investigation they have brought a huge dreadnought and army to bear on the settlement. Eventually Esa and Kamali get off world with the aid of a cybernetic Preacher and a sentient AI powered spaceship called Scheherazade but before she can return to the Justified’s base known as Sanctum they soon realise the Pax’s aggression is not just focused on Esa but the rest of the Justified too and a battle to save her own sect then takes centre stage.

I was extremely impressed with what Williams brings to the mix in this tale. One is the sheer number of standout set pieces. We start in a simple farm settlement and slowly as the action moves across space, we visit smuggler bases made from giant abandoned starships; multi-coloured gas planet clusters and a system devastated by black hole weaponry. Williams really makes the visuals stand out in novel form and you get that feeling the universe here is immense and has tonnes of areas to be explored. And as well as the sheer number of settings the pace never makes me feel like Williams is trying to show me too much - it is very action orientated and as the scenery gets grander the odds in each action sequence are raised too. Williams makes tense shoot-outs; daring space battles and whole range fleet attacks soar with energy. It’s a very nimble set up and really drives the reader to continue to explore this universe.

As always though for a successful tale I need interesting characters and there are four stand-out female characters leading most of the action. Our cybernetic Preacher is clearly hiding a few secrets as she seems more than aware of how to shoot any type of weapon. Esa is a very grounded orphan happy to give check but realistically actually acts like a young adult and the move from street kid to lost child is delivered beautifully. I love the introduction of sentient AI who all have a sense of humour and make you care if a ship will survive each frenetic encounter.

But the standout is Kamali. She is our lead narrator in this story, and she is an intriguing choice of lead.  She claims she is a soldier (certainly very skilled at hand to hand and space-set dogfights) but she seems very focused on recruiting kids for her cause. She carries a lot of guilt from her previous life (pre-pulse), but she is refreshingly pragmatic and someone that the cast can gently (or sometimes less so) tease. You want to know why Kamali is doing what she is doing and the fact she has decided the Justified are right makes you want to know more about what makes this sect tick.  That sets off a much larger and mysterious plot that I suspect future volumes will return to but in this its very much a battle of two factions with very different mentalities. There is a whole theme across the book about learning to do better from your mistakes (as well as taking responsibility for the aftermath of them) whether that is a personal one or a galactic one. Its curiously uplifting to see that sometimes people can do better.

There is a lot to discover in this novel and I’m intrigued how this will pan out further, but I think its safe to say that Williams is giving us something very enticing.  Fans of the Expanse, Star Wars and fast-paced SF should form an orderly queue and get this book into their eyes now.  I suspect this one will be very popular!!