I was unfamiliar with S.K. Dunstall’s very well received Linesman series when I picked up their latest Stars Uncharted, but I think I may delve into the series now having read a fun, action-packed sci-fi adventure filled with just enough quirky worldbuilding to entice and not distract.
Stars Uncharted moves at a steady pace alternating between the points of view of two main characters, Josune Arriola and Nika Rik Terri. Both women are badass. Josune is a life-long star system explorer looking for a storied treasure on an unknown planet. When the novel opens with her, we are facing off against a mysterious group of corporate commandos who have murdered the crew of the Hassim. The Hassim has been Josune’s home for ages, but its captain sent her to the ship The Road to Goberlings to spy on its captain Hammond Roystan. Now Josune and her new crew salvage the Hassim seizing its memory and setting off the grander story arc of the novel.
This is a story masking its treasure hunt in the assemblage of the treasure hunters. The plot is relatively straight-forward, mega-corporations want the treasure map our gang possesses. Will this crew survive? The treasure is a bit of a MacGuffin since the novel is more concerned with how these individuals decide to come together to form a crew. They discover each other’s secrets and in doing so develop a deep trust and affection. Successful character driven sci-fi is always a reward. Lovers of hard science fiction will likely balk at the details of Dunstall’s worldbuilding and impatiently endure character interaction as they long for needlessly complicated plot twists. Yet, the vast majority of readers will be immensely satisfied.
In this world, body modification is ubiquitous. It is an art form but also a fact of life (much in the way writing code has become for all generations except the Baby Boom) advancing to such a degree gender is simply a detail like color and whole bodies can be reshaped, re-sculpted into someone wholly new. That is, if you have the time and money.
Here is where Nika fits in as one of the elite ‘modders’ in the galaxy. However, even her expertise and fame can’t protect her from partner abuse as she gets drawn into the corporate underworld. Her manipulative and abusive partner discovers Nika has created a machine that can swap consciousness, for twenty-four hours you inhabit the body of another person. It is ripe for criminal plunder. Nika escapes from under the thumb of the crime lord but not without a good deal of violence and sacrifice leaving her on the run looking for a vessel to take her far away.
The body modification industry has risen due to the discovery of rare metals that don’t exist on Earth. Space explorers go out into the void with purpose, find these resources, and return having made their fortune. One such explorer, a man named Goberling, returned time and again with huge hauls of the metals never revealing where he found them. Fast forward nearly a hundred years, Goberling has become a cult figure inspiring explorers to search the galaxy for his mother lode. They research him, they discover new worlds, but they don’t care because they only want to find this one treasure. Such is the crew of the Hassim, a ship and crew that has gone the farthest in the galaxy and the furthest in hunting down Goberling’s secrets. The counterpart to these explorers are the massive corporations that have grown up thanks to the resources found by these explorers. The companies are so huge they impose their own law on the galaxy leaving folks to live and work in their ruthless shadow.
From the get-go we realize no one in this story is who they claim to be. Body modification as a default practice complicates every relationship while also casting doubt on motivations. Mixing this with almost non-stop action, we read characters trying to figure things out on the fly, not having a moment to catch their breath. When they do find repose, they are able to begin to piece together mysteries, but before they can come to some conclusion, they’re on the run again.
By novel’s end, these characters are united. They’ve come out stronger together and on top, for now. In a way, Stars Uncharted reads like a prequel novel, the story about how this crew came together and why they are out in the galaxy doing what they’re doing. I would hope that S.K. Dunstall commits to this world as a new series because it feels like a rich vein of action, adventure, and speculation.
About the Author
S. K. Dunstall is the is the pen name used by Australian sisters Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall authors of national bestselling the Linesman series, including Linesman, Alliance, and Confluence. @SKDunstall