The Blighted Stars by Megan O’Keefe is a mix of the horror of human expansion, the fear of limited resources, and humanity’s resolve. Her characters are engaging with conflicting motivations in a situation where they must work together. The first book in The Devoured Worlds series is full of action and small character moments that make reading the book feel fast-paced but also give the characters enough downtime to delve into who they are. The world-building of this science fiction novel is both fascinating and approachable. Underlying a plot of survival and corporate espionage is an enemies-to-lovers story that interweaves well into the main action.
The plot seems straightforward at first; on their way to Sixth Cradle, an earth-like planet on The Amaranth, a mining ship owned by the megacorporation Mercator, their sister ship, the Einkhorn, fires upon them. Tarquin Mercator, the geologist son of the company’s owner, Naira Sharp, printed into the body of an exemplar, bodyguards, and mercenaries to the corporate families collectively known as MERIT, and a handful of survivors are forced to escape to the planet below. The world-building plays an integral part in the events of Sixth Cradle, with humanity having nearly conquered death by being able to scan and map the human mind and then reproduce the mapping into bodies that are printed like 3D printing a mini figure for your tabletop game. Only a highly traumatic death of a print can crack the neural map to the point that reprinting becomes impossible. These bodies can be embedded with pathways, a type of organic circuitry that enhances particular abilities to help with different tasks and occupations. This technology is thanks to the resource relkatite, which Mercator mines from the cradle planets, including Earth. The author introduces these concepts and the backstories of characters connected with these concepts at a pace that is neither an infodump nor a slog trying to figure it out.
As the book starts, Naira Sharp, a former exemplar who defected and joined the anti-MERIT group known as the Conservators, is presumed to have the map of her mind locked away, unable to be printed after claiming Mercator’s mining process causes a spore lichen that destroys a planet’s plant life and ecosystem making it uninhabitable to anyone that they called the shroud. After testifying against Naira as a geology expert witness, Tarquin is out to go to Sixth Cradle and finally prove his family’s innocence. From the moment they crash land on Sixth Cradle, the plot hits the ground running. In order to get away from Mecator, who still owns her map, Naira is forced to work with Tarquin, the man who got her neural map put on ice, to begin with, to survive and get off the planet. Speaking of survival and how the world-building interweaves into the action, those machines that print bodies can also have technical issues just like any printer, but what it creates are misprints, deformed amalgamations of human parts that appear in multiple horrifying scenes that push the two point-of-view characters together out of necessity.
The two could not be more different, but their interactions and growing relationship are the book’s backbone. That relationship starts off with a lot of tension. Tarquin is essentially the cause of her mind being a prisoner of her ex-employer, who she believes is causing great harm to the human race. She’d probably have killed him if she didn’t need Tarquin to escape the planet. Instead, she not only has to treat him with respect but protect his life as well. Meanwhile, Tarquin is responsible for the survivors and is rapt with the mystery of why the shroud was already at Sixth Cradle before humanity arrived. Tarquin, desperate for camaraderie, tries to be a man of the people, not realizing his privileged position. By insisting he be treated like everyone else, he makes all their jobs harder because he isn’t like anyone else. Naira, with no other choice but to work with him, begins to enlighten him as the book goes on, not only why what he’s trying to do is wrong but also what being an employee of Mercator is really like. A lot of The Blighted Stars is about trust. Could Naira trust Tarquin with the truth? Could Tarquin trust his father and his family’s company about the shroud? Can the survivors of the Amaranth trust each other, or was one of them a saboteur? Between the two main point-of-view characters, O’Keefe does an excellent job of not making one seem more correct than the other, though it’s hard to disagree with Naira as Tarquin is in the dark about MERIT’s more sordid actions.
Between exploring the Sixth Cradle for clues as to what is going on and the actions they have to take, the walls between Naira and Tarquin begin to fall. She starts to understand the son, capable of empathy despite his role, is not like the father. He, too, begins to see Naira, despite her pretending to be someone else, as the complex individual in a complicated situation she is. Not only does O’Keefe use enemies-to-lover proficiently, but adds to it the trope of a romance that breaks the chain of command, even if only because of who Naira is pretending to be. Their budding romance between flirtation that breaks protocol, to lingering touches, to accidental contact will have you biting your fingers thinking oh, this is the moment when they’ll finally kiss, only for them to get interrupted by another crisis that gradually gets more severe and pressing as the secrets of the planet, Mercator, and the shroud are revealed.
More than halfway through the book, there is a twist, a reveal, that completely changes the stakes of Tarquin and Naira’s situation. Searching back into the chapters, Megan E. O’Keefe had deftly and subtly given hints of what was to come, but I had not seen it coming in the best way. I went into the book believing exposing the corruption of these families of megacorporations was the conflict at the forefront of the series, only to be blown away by how much deeper it goes. It was a reveal that let you know this wouldn’t be solved in one novel that didn’t feel tact on at the end but hooked you for the rest of the series before the first one was even done. It creates new conflict and expands upon everything the characters and the reader know about the setting of The Devoured World series.
The Blighted Stars by Megan O’Keefe quickly hooked me for more from the series using action, romance, espionage, and science fiction that is accessible and engrossing. It’s a fast read with complexity and thoughtful revelations about humanity. I need to know what happens next to Tarquin Mercator and Naira Sharp, no matter what may occur. That, in itself, is a mark of an excellent beginning to a series.
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Joshua was provided an advance copy of the book by Orbit Books.
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