Lilyaka Hae Ransome answered to no man. Born to a powerful clan on the storm-wracked colony world of Unruli, she’d grown up wilful, independent, strong. The only person who held her respect was the enigmatic man called Heredes, who tutored her in history and the martial arts.
So when alien bounty hunters kidnapped Heredes, she threw away her heritage and set out after him on an awesome odyssey through the unknown reaches of space.
Alis A. Rasmussen, now better known by her pseudonym Kate Elliott, entered the science fiction scene in 1990 with this, her second novel; in the following two and a half decades, she has since written over 20 more books, including two novels and a short story collection coming out in 2015. So how does this early offering hold up in the second decade of the 21st century?
In some ways, A Passage to the Stars is a coming of age story; Lilyaka – Lily – may be 25, but that is below the age of adulthood in her society, and she doesn’t have any sense of a path or of her future; a large part of the novel’s arc is about her coming to terms with herself, and with those around her – moving from being a drifter without any real anchors to an emotionally stable, solid sense of self to having a much more concrete idea of who she is and where she is going. That renders this an absolute bildungsroman, this first book of the trilogy having a very personal arc as well as a broader one; Rasmussen handles the combination of the two arcs beautifully, ensuring plot and character-development go hand in hand, and neither feels unnatural.
The rest of the cast are less centred in the novel; they have huge impact on the events of the plot and on Lily herself, but they aren’t themselves impacted in the same way – Kyosti remains mysterious and unknown, although the mysteries around him are increasingly being revealed; Heredes is perpetually the father-figure for Lily, protective and somewhat aloof; and the remainder of the ensemble tend to not even remain long enough for significant impact, largely passing through the life of Lily and impacting on her, rather than us seeing much of the impact of her on them in A Passage of Stars.
Rasmussen’s plot is harder to explain in terms of science fiction; it feels almost like an epic fantasy plot, in fact, in its approach. Started by Lily’s witnessing of the kidnapping of her mentor, Heredes, it proceeds somewhat episodically in a series of dramatic encounters with different powerful forces in the universe who are in conflict with each other and who each have their own interest in Lily and misconceptions about her. A Passage of Stars manages to make this feel organic and natural, as we travel from place to place and see Lily meeting these key figures in the Highroad universe; it feels a little like this first book is setting all its pieces in place for the real events of the trilogy, making sure the reader is introduced to the key players and factors which will come up later, tied together by the aforementioned coming of age story for Lily.
A Passage of Stars, in some ways, feels very modern for a 24-year-old novel; in a world where SF doesn’t acknowledge the agency of women often enough, it is a novel with a female protagonist and a significant female cast; in a world where SF can’t handle sexualities outside heterosexuality, Rasmussen has included a lesbian couple, open relationships, polyamory and indeed asexuality, something that even now is very uncommon to see in SF. It’s really refreshing to see the way that Rasmussen doesn’t see this as strange or unexpected or abnormal. On the other hand, the racial commentary, in the form of the “tattoos” or Ridanis, is rather heavy-handed and obvious; worthwhile perhaps, but A Passage of Stars somewhat falls down on this front in making it a little too blunt, though with a Ridani character joining the main cast at the close of the novel hopefully this will be further addressed in later novels.
In the end, A Passage of Stars is a very enjoyable first entry in an SF trilogy which holds up very well today; Rasmussen’s approach to storytelling centres characters in such a way that they remain readable well after their publication. I recommend the novel.