Steal the Stars, a new novel by Nat Cassidy based on the popular podcast of the same name, is a curious mix of romance, science fiction, and political thriller, set in the context of a heist story. It deftly manages most of these elements but also delights in defying the reader’s expectations. Its fascinating premise makes for a great read overall, but it is definitely going to be divisive for many readers. This is especially true in the final act which can most accurately be described as escalating degrees of “what the fuck.” At the risk of being overly topical, this book is The Last Jedi if it were mostly told as a love story (which actually sounds like a great idea, but I digress).
I should note for those unfamiliar with the podcast that listening is not required in order to this will be of no hindrance to understanding and enjoying this book. My understanding is that the book follows the podcast storyline quite closely, such that it might be more apt to call this a novelization. Regardless, it is a unique story told with humour and excitement. It is a page-turner in the truest sense. And Cassidy has done some wonderful work building a believable but nonetheless terrifying near-future world for the characters to inhabit.
Steal the Stars tells the story of a quasi-private organization that comes into the possession of a crashed alien spacecraft and its presumed-dead inhabitant, a lanky fellow they refer to as Moss. This shadowy organization, called Quill Marine, studies the mysterious extraterrestrials for its own dubious purposes, although it is apparent that they are interested in the weaponization potential above all. The book does not, as one might expect, focus on the story of the scientists studying the craft or the owners of the company that control it. Rather, the story belongs to the former Special Forces soldiers who act as guards for the secret operation, particularly our protagonist Dak Prentiss, and her would-be love interest, Matt Salem.
I say “would-be” not because this is an unrequited love scenario. Quite the opposite. The two alien bodyguards start making googly eyes at each other essentially upon first meeting. The problem lies with their employer and its draconian code of conduct that expressly prohibits inter-squad fraternization. The consequences for violating said policy are not exactly a slap on the wrist. Anyone caught idly getting down with a colleague is not only getting fired, they are going to the Quill Marine equivalent of Guantanamo for quite a long time. This creates a small disincentive for our heroes Dak and Matt to get out of their fatigues together.
Needless to say, they do it anyway and begin a clandestine affair that is destined to be exposed. Within mere weeks it is apparent that their relationship will shortly have catastrophic results for both of them so they decide to take the only sensible course of action. End the affair? Of course not. They decide to steal the alien and some additional space tech and sell it to a rival nation in return for asylum. The classic girl-meets-boy, girl-likes-boy, girl-and-boy-commit-treason story.
The book’s main character is its greatest triumph. Dak Prentiss is a cool lady (despite the irritating resemblance of her name to that of Dallas Cowboys quarterback and noted fantasy football albatross, Dak Prescott). She is a flawed but thoroughly relatable woman who we cannot help but root for, even when she makes entirely terrible decisions. We want her insane heist plan to succeed because we feel she deserves something better than she’s gotten so far. She occasionally provokes bar fights (and kicks serious ass) and has dubious taste in men, but she is a sincere, sympathetic character who we want to see win.
Unfortunately, Dak’s lousy taste in men is a pretty key part of the book as well. The romance elements of Steal the Stars are definitely its weakest, if for no other reason than the romantic pairing makes relatively little sense. Matt’s character is not drawn with sufficient depth and other than apparently being physically attractive and relatively competent at his job, the reader knows very little about him that would attract a deep and worldly woman like Dak. We certainly could understand her wanting to have a fling with this guy, but throwing away her career, her friendships, and potentially her life just so that she can live forever in hiding with a hot but vanilla dude? As much as men named Matt are unquestionably hard to resist, this plot point does stretch credulity a little.
The weakness in the love story, however, is more than made up for by the book’s other elements. The alien-related parts feel like honest-to-goodness old school science fiction- speculative, weird and wonderful. The dystopian elements of the story feel at once foreign yet eerily familiar to anyone who just finished the joyride that was 2017. But the best element of the book is unquestionably the tragically doomed quest of Dak and Matt to avoid discovery of their trysts. This fool’s errand sees the star-crossed (pun fully intended) lovers betraying friends and colleagues, flirting with mortal danger, and in the end, trying to drive a van full of space artifacts across international borders. And yes, reading the details of this madness is every bit as fun as it sounds.
And as for the book’s conclusion, there isn’t much to say without spoiling. I thought it was crazy as hell and I loved it. Some people will undoubtedly feel the opposite. The buzz phrase of the day regarding TV and film seems to be “it subverts your expectations.” Steal the Stars doesn’t just subvert your expectations. It throws them in a dumpster, sets them on fire, and then does a touchdown celebration dance on their ashes. Whether this ending works for you or not, I’d suggest that the journey to get there is well worth it regardless.