Earth Star by Janet Edwards
Reviewed by Phoebe North
15 January 2014
When I reviewed Janet Edwards's Earth Girl last year, I found it to be a mixed bag, featuring compelling worldbuilding elements and a strong voice, but also strangely structured, with a heroine whose emotions were rarely focused on the larger conflicts of the novel. My experience with Earth Star, the sequel, unfortunately offered even more of the same. While Jarra Tell Monrath (formerly known as Jarra Reath) remains a human and relatable YA heroine, I remain unconvinced that she was the right narrator for this story.
Earth Star begins with promise: after the conclusion of the events of Earth Girl, an alien sphere begins hovering over the African continent, silent and foreboding. This is a scenario rife with potential conflict, though the novel suffers when Edwards twists plot, character, and, most of all, plausibility in order to place Jarra at the forefront of the action. Not only are her archaeology courses abruptly moved to Africa, but Jarra and her boyfriend Fian are suddenly promoted to military majors—at 18, without any true military experience. The characters themselves discuss the implausibility of this several times, a habit which draws attention to how unrealistically these events transpire rather than excusing or contextualizing them:
"How many field promotions have I given out today?" asked Colonel Torrek.
"I've lost count,” said Nia Stone.
"Either twenty-four or twenty-five," said Leveque, "depending on whether you count Jarra's promotions as two separate ones or combine them." (p. 73)
"I feel like such a fake," I said. "I've been given the Artemis for bagging a few rocks. I've been made a major to impress a few history experts, but the people in there are true heroes." (p. 81)
Jarra's exceptionalism was a problem in the first novel; in Earth Girl, she was meant to be an example of an "ape"—part of an oppressed population of young people unable to leave Earth due to an overactive immune system. But Jarra's determination to hide her "handicapped" status meant that her experiences were closer to the norm for an average girl of the twenty-eighth century, and not at all representative of someone of her own class. Readers were never treated to a true examination of the complexities of Jarra's life, or the difficulties of being Earthbound in a society built around travel to far-flung worlds. Now, in this second volume, Edwards once again thrusts Jarra into an impossible situation for someone of her limitations. The narration and dialogue all suggest that we're supposed to believe this is possible because Jarra (and, by extension, Fian) are really just that amazing, but the actual scope of their abilities and interests suggest that they're really quite typical in many ways.
Later revelations that Jarra is the descendant of a famous military figure don't help—nor does the reveal, late in the third act, that her conscription is not quite what it seems. In all honesty, a more sensible framework for this premise, in which a human race scattered throughout the stars for generations encounters extraterrestrial life for the first time, would have been to view it through the lens of a character who was actually and plausibly a member of the military class. Through Jarra, we're able to merely glimpse a cross-section of wider humanity as they react to this tremendous event, and even then she's only at the center of the action via a series of contrivances.
However, as in Earth Girl, Jarra's focus remains strangely inward-facing. The alien sphere doesn't really do anything, and so Jarra spends the portion of the book set in the military outpost contemplating her relationship with Fian. Her anxiety over whether to secure a new "Twoing contract"—a sort of pre-engagement—or whether to wear standard Twoing rings as an outward declaration of that commitment is realistic for a girl on the cusp of adulthood. However, unlike in Earth Girl, the relationship between Jarra and Fian is largely without true conflict or heat. They talk about sex frequently, but it's with all the passion of a middle-aged married couple (role-playing apparently features heavily in their sex life). One never wonders whether they'll ultimately commit; it's clear, from the outset, that Jarra's relationship problems are largely of her own making rather than arising from any true clash in desires between the couple. And so the tension here fizzles, too.
But buried beneath both these plotlines is a more resonant one. Deep into the second half of Earth Star, Jarra and Fian return to their schooling as students of archaeology. The conflicts here, both practical and emotional, feel more organic and true to life, and the familiar characters of the first novel are a welcome respite from the more cartoonish military personalities we encounter in Earth Star's first half. During this portion of the book, Jarra is forced to contemplate both Fian's mortality, as well as her own, and these fears are much more grounded than her more irrational worries about wearing rings or giving voice to her emotions. Some passages are quite deeply felt:
I walked up to the tank and touched the cool glass with my right hand as I looked at Fian. His eyes were closed and his face seemed relaxed and peaceful with his long hair drifting around it like golden seaweed. There were a lot of tubes, and his side looked like one of the anatomy vids they showed us in school. I should know which bit was a kidney, the ribs were obvious, the . . . (p. 203)
It's a curious choice, on the part of the author, to focus her narrative not on these more personal issues but on a less effective and fully developed alien-invasion tale. The scope of the story would have been smaller, for sure—but also more intimate and poignantly rendered. However, Edwards instead spends most of the narrative on a plotline that's meant to be high concept, but which is never really explored it to its full potential. The reader is kept at an arm's length, which lends the novel a strange, scattered, and almost irrelevant feeling.
Of course, ultimately we're returned to the ostensible plot—the alien sphere—though without any true resolution. I suppose we're bound to return to this plotline for the third novel in the trilogy. I'm somewhat curious as to how this conflict will escalate, though in truth, I wish that Edwards had kept her scope small and intimate for the duration of the second book—and I wonder if the third will be plagued with the same issues of plausibility that are found in Earth Star and Earth Girl. Jarra Tell Monrath, no matter how amaz, simply isn't the best character to tackle interstellar conflicts in this universe.