Starfinder by John Marco

A Skylords Novel
Published by DAW
ISBN 978-0-7564-0551-9
May 2009
325 Pages

John Marco, known perhaps best for his epic militaristic fantasy trilogy Tyrants and Kings and more recently for his connected series of books about Lukien the Bronze Knight shifts gears a bit with Starfinder. Although not specifically aimed at younger readers, the book definitely has appeal for young adults, much like John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale.

The tale centers on Moth, an orphaned boy of thirteen who lives with Leroux, a former knight who acts as Moth’s guardian. In essence, Moth is our “young plucky hero;” he dreams of becoming a Skynight and piloting a Dragonfly in defense of his native land of Calio. A Dragonfly is an ornithopter, winged aircraft which give the first hint that the world of these novels isn’t quite your typical fantasyland. Moth is limited by his orphan status from truly striving for his dreams, however. When Leroux dies, Moth inherits a magical talisman which is also sought after by the Mayor. Unfortunately for the mayor, Moth promised Leroux he would safeguard the talisman, the titular Starfinder, and enter the Reach – a forbidden zone lorded over by the Skylords – and right a wrong that took place many years ago.

That’s the essential bones of the plot and, as he did in his previous novels, Marco adds good substance to those bones. The world in which this takes place has echoes of myth, but also features technology not normally seen in similar novels. For one, the humans have developed gunpowder and airborne transportation. I got something of a Jack Vance, steampunkish feel from the world with the mix of technology such as airships and gunpowder, but the feel of a world in the 18th or 19th Century. Then there’s the world on the other side of the Reach – dragons, dragonmen, centaurs, and mermaids – many creatures out of myth, folklore, and faerie. In short, Starfinder presents a rich and engaging world.

The characters help carry the story along. Initially, Moth comes across as an immature kid with great aspirations and dreams. His reality is put into check early on when his mentor dies and later when he becomes embroiled in the quest on which his deceased mentor set him. His best friend, Fiona, helps to further ground Moth and counterbalances his high aspirations with doses of reality considering her grandfather is Mayor and is also seeking the Moth’s inherited talisman. The supporting characters are well rounded and add to the depth and richness of the world – the night Skyhigh, the aforementioned Mayor, the stubborn and honorific centaurs of the Reach. That said, Starfinder is definitely Moth’s novel – his story of discovery and coming of age.

Starfinder is a coming-of-age tale that may be familiar in its structure to many readers, but the backdrop against which it is set, while also containing familiar elements, has been shuffled around freshly to give the story a nice sense of fantastical wonder. Marco does a great job of showing the Reach through the eyes of Moth and Fiona, for as he encounters mermaids and centaurs, his sense of wonder at meeting these creatures resonates quite well. His meeting with the Skylords, the Greek/Norse god like higher beings who rule the Reach, comes across quite entertainingly. This is especially true with the youthful “reverence” he shows when told he must respect these once-legendary powerful overlords of humanity.

If the richness of the world and pacing are the best qualities of the book, these two come together quite strongly in the climax of the novel. Gods and men fighting in fantastical ships with magic and humanity’s freedom at stake – sure, a small encapsulation, but Marco builds to it quite well and the payoff is solid.

I did have one problem with the early portions of the novel that dissipated towards the end, but were still present – the dialogue. Moth’s early dialogue was a bit rough around the edges and, at times, seemed forced into short staccato sentences that really didn’t flow too well. While Moth is a 13-year old boy and most 13-year olds don’t speak in long eloquent sentences, his dialogue still felt a bit off, for lack of a better term as did his go-get-‘em attitude. It may be off-putting to some readers, but the overall story being told in the novel balances out some of that.

Stafinder is a paced very well, is told with a lot of fun, hints at greater things to come and stories to be told. Once John Marco settles into his authorial voice and tone for this novel he wants to apply to this story, I found it difficult to keep the pages from turning in my hands. Starfinder is a solid and entertaining novel, which is what I (and John’s other readers) have come to expect.

© 2009 Rob H. Bedford

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