Book Review: Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns

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By Jacob P. Torres

Find my spoiler-free review of Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns, her premiere book and the first in a series featuring this cast of characters. Her second book, Mutiny at Vesta is due later this year.

Cover Description: “Two engineers hijack a spaceship to join some space pirates—only to discover the pirates are hiding from a malevolent AI. Now they have to outwit the AI if they want to join the pirate crew—and survive long enough to enjoy it.

Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.

But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury—they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave—so there’s no way out.

Adda and Iridian have one chance to earn a place on the pirate crew: destroy the artificial intelligence. The last engineer who went up against the AI met an untimely end, and the pirates are taking bets on how the newcomers will die. But Adda and Iridian plan to beat the odds.

There’s a glorious future in piracy…if only they can survive long enough.”

What is the book about?

This book covers the relationship and adventures of our two main protagonists, Adda and Iridian. Both of these ladies are new engineers: Iridian an ex-soldier and mechanical engineer and Adda, a brilliant, socially awkward computer engineer fresh out of school.  For reasons that are never really explained beyond “working for the system is bad,” they decide to hijack a colony ship and deliver it as prize bounty to the Pirates of Barbary Station, a group of outlaws feared throughout the system. There they find a story not as advertised. The pirates are held hostage by a wrathful A.I., living like barnacles to the outside of the station, cohabitating with stranded refugees from a recent war, and medical personnel held prisoner by the A.I. for their safety. Adda and Iridian are given a quick directive, use their skills as engineers to get everyone the hell off this station and they’re in the crew with full shares and status, fail, well don’t fail.

What Did I Like About the Book?

There’s a lot to enjoy in this book. It’s got an engaging kind of a premise. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a decent pirates book. I think the thing I enjoyed the most was the two primary characters Iridian and Adda. It was refreshing to see both our primary protagonists be women in STEM fields and have that field of study be central to the plot. That they were also in a relationship and both women of color was a big added bonus as well. The big minus for both of them was that they also fell into some stereotypes and tropes.

The relationship between our protagonists was also a fairly positive point for the book. Adda and Iridian clearly care for and accept each other as they are. There is no real relationship drama or angst. We’re presented with a loving a mostly healthy appearing relationship and that persists through the book. I would’ve liked to learn more of the history between the two and seen more one on one time, but there was a lot happening in this book and that might be something we see in later ones.

The book touches on some of the ethical implications of having sentient and near-sentient A.I. but never quite commits to that being a central premise. There are a lot of positive set pieces that could be developed into really engaging content in subsequent books.

Who was my Favorite Character?

Iridian, of the two protagonists, felt the most meaningfully developed and likeable. She’s a tall, muscular, dark-skinned ex-soldier who gave up all the military life to be a mechanical engineer. She’s gruff but socially engaging and charismatic, if that sounds like a cookie cutter description of an action movie star, you’re not wrong. But refreshingly she knows when to push and when to hold back, she’s fiercely protective of her own, and much of her narrative also includes her trying to find the right way to propose to Adda.

What Did I Not Like?

Stereotypes and tropes abound. To be clear, I think this is a first book kind of failing, and that even in that context you can have what we had in this book where it’s obvious that tropes and stereotypes have been relied on as part of the narrative backbone versus just unforgiveable dumpster fires. But it can become particularly trying when they’re everywhere. The Captain is a feared but respected leader of men with a mysterious past. The cook is well loved dispenser of sage advice. There’s a grizzled old pirate who becomes mentor and friend to Iridian. A.I. upon awakening immediately want to kill all the things. Adda’s brother Pel is a chronic misfit whose good intentions keep getting him into progressively worse situations. But Adda was the worst. Imagine a techy girl, not one you know, but the stereotype of one. Did she have multi-colored hair? Check. Was she short? Check. Socially awkward and shy? Check. Real self-conscious about her body? Check. The ways that Adda were unique helped here, but it was still damaging to one of the protagonists to have so much of their character be from particularly bad stereotypes.

The Verdict!

I’m giving this 3.0 out of 5 cups of tea. It was a decent, if rocky debut novel. It tried to accomplish a heck of a lot and succeeded in most of the important ways. It over-relies on tropes, archetypes, and stereotypes to build the narrative structure of the story and the cast, but not so completely that further character development in subsequent books might correct this or make it less glaring. It was decent enough that I’ll pick up the sequel to see if things keep improving, but also because it’s still rare enough to see an explicit LGBTQA+ couple take center screen in SciFi that this is worth the read.

3 of 5
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 5 cups of tea. It was a decent, if rocky debut novel. It tried to accomplish a heck of a lot and succeeded in most of the important ways.
Pros Cons
+ LGBTQA+ couple are the protagonists of the story, their relationship is a central part of the story, and seems decently done if a little tropey. – The tropes are everywhere and it leads to a lot of under-developed characters, especially the captain Adda and Iridian are supposed to be join.
+ A lot of set pieces are present that could build a really fun and imaginative world. – A lot of the set pieces don’t really land or are left open in a way that we’re real uncertain the author will ever return to them.
+ Who doesn’t like a good Pirate story? – Ultimately the whole book feels a little unpolished, could be first novel problems that get corrected in the sequel.

 

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