Review: Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci

If you're interested in hearing from the author, she stopped by Working for the Mandroid last week as part of her tour! Read her thoughts on aliens and science fiction influences and enter to win a copy of Tin Star here.

Tin Star
Cecil Castellucci

Roaring Brook Press
I received an ARC from the publisher in return for an honest review.
Releases February 25, 2014
240 pages
YA / SciFi / Aliens

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On their way to start a new life, Tula and her family travel on the Prairie Rose, a colony ship headed to a planet in the outer reaches of the galaxy. All is going well until the ship makes a stop at a remote space station, the Yertina Feray, and the colonist's leader, Brother Blue, beats Tula within an inch of her life. An alien, Heckleck, saves her and teaches her the ways of life on the space station.

When three humans crash land onto the station, Tula's desire for escape becomes irresistible, and her desire for companionship becomes unavoidable. But just as Tula begins to concoct a plan to get off the space station and kill Brother Blue, everything goes awry, and suddenly romance is the farthest thing from her mind.

Stranded on a space station with only various alien races to keep you company? I am there! The idea behind Tin Star captivated me from the moment I first heard of it. A teenage human girl left on her own to deal with alien races and space politics to survive is not something regularly found in YA lit. I hadn’t read any of Castellucci’s previous books, so I was really intrigued to see what she was about.

Tin Star opens with Tula standing on the dock of a space station questioning Brother Blue, the leader of her group of colonists, on why their supply of grain has been uploaded from the ship when they’re about to leave for their new home. Brother Blue doesn’t take this questioning very lightly and beats her to death (he thinks), leaving her in an alcove for a space janitor to find later. He makes a big powerful speech that clearly marks him as a conman and the leader of a cult to the reader, loads up everyone on the ship and sends them on their way while he goes on a separate ship.

A lot of space politics are floating just beneath the surface of this book. At the beginning Earth is an isolationist planet, so that anyone who leaves to colonize other planets or associate with aliens are banned from ever returning. Later on the Imperium – the intergalactic governing body, I think – has convinced the Earth to join them with Brother Blue acting as one of their key ambassadors.

While there’s some explanation between what distinguishes the more respected Major alien races from the Minor alien races, the politics are kept in the shadow so that they don’t bog down the story. At its core Tin Star is a story of revenge – Tula getting revenge for being left behind and for the tragic outcome of her family at Brother Blue’s hands. The politics just allow for the right players to be in the right place at the right time.

The space station felt like a giant, multi-story airport to me, filled with alien races. This opened up a lot of potential for misunderstanding, hijinks and interesting people to cross paths with Tula. Castelluci makes good use of her premise to create several alien races and makes regular reference to alien foods to sort of add some world building, but in the end, it’s Tula’s story and it’s one that could take place anywhere. She just happens to be abandoned on a remote spaceport in the middle of nowhere.

So the idea behind it all was great and I was excited. The opening pages involving Tula’s encounter with Brother Blue increased my interest, but not very long after Castellucci’s narrative style left me cold. It was very one note, almost like the monotone voice equivalent of narrative storytelling. Instead of feeling like a story, it read more like a series of connected events with no emotion behind it, so I felt completely detached from the story from nearly the beginning. I never felt the ebbs and flows of pacing, it just plays straight down the middle until it stops. I suppose there was a conclusion and a set up for a sequel, but there was no climax or feeling of an ending. It felt the same as if I set the book down one day and just didn’t pick it back up again.

I really enjoyed the idea of Tula, her resourcefulness, her means of survival among alien races. It would have been nice to have seen those characteristics develop, the trial and error that turned her into this well-respected person on the station when all the aliens hated humans. Instead we went from Tula getting beaten and left behind at 14 to flash forwarding three years down the road where she’s suddenly a badass who seems to know all the inner workings of the station. It was just another thing that happened in the series of things that happened, no color or emotion added.

When characters die that should be important, there was no impact. When romance was meant to be budding, there was no heat or even a hint of giddiness. When a character was meant to be secretly in love with Tula, I kept expecting him to be a bad guy because the writing made it feel like he always seemed to have sinister motives, so I couldn’t quite figure out why Tula felt comforted by his presence. When imminent danger is near, there is no fear or building momentum that leaves me hanging on every word. It’s like all the emotion was sucked out of an airlock and all that was left was a straight forward story with no color.

The ideas and the simple world that Castelluci started to build in Tin Star had so much potential. I enjoyed the story that was there, but I didn’t enjoy my experience of reading it, which makes no sense and yet are the only way I can think to describe my reaction. It feels like an early draft of a much better book, like it was a way to get the plot down and the build out of the world, the characters and the feeling would be added in later. This bare bones writing style just isn’t for me.

 

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.