It took me some time to get back to this future world in which living ships forge the vast interstellar distances and work as “traveling convents” for the nuns aboard, bringing help and comfort to those in need, but after the first few pages I felt again comfortable in this universe.
The sisters of the order of Saint Rita are dealing with the aftermath of the events from Sisters of the Vast Black, at the end of which they suffered heavy losses, both human and non-human, considering the death of their living ship-convent, named Our Lady of Impossible Constellations. Presently the nuns are traveling on a new ship, but it’s still a youngling so it needs constant care and nutrients, and since they broke any ties with the Church and Earth government funds are scarce and they have to keep a low profile and make do with what they can scrounge along the way.
Much of the story in Forsaken Stars hinges around these difficulties and the even greater threat of discovery: the nuns’ actions in revealing Earth’s responsibility in the deadly plague hitting rebellious colonies have turned them into a sort of heroic figures, taken as example and inspiration by those who are eager to shake off the yoke of Earth Governance, and they are constantly debating about how to travel the thin line separating their mission of help to those in need from the danger of becoming figureheads. The uncertainty weighing on the sisters is further enhanced by the arrival of two new people: Kristen, a young postulant asking to join the convent and Eris, the long-lost sister of Ewostatewos: the former represents the unknown factor that might unsettle the fragile balance aboard the ship, the latter is like an unwelcome spotlight shining on them because she is clearly on the run, and therefore a wanted individual.
Unlike the first book in the series, Forsaken Stars seems a little less…cohesive, for want of a better word, somewhat meandering at times, but with hindsight I can see how this uncertainty in plot is a mirror for the uncertainty plaguing the nuns who have lost their support system and have to forge a completely new way of doing things – and surviving – which might take some time before it’s ironed out into the precise mechanism it used to be with Our Lady of Impossible Constellations. Moreover, the nuns are dealing with the emotional fallout of their losses – even though not all of them are due to death, since former Sister Gemma left the convent to join her lover Vauca, an engineer on the deadship (i.e. a conventional construct) Cheng I Sao, where they try to nurture the failed shiplings in the hope of creating something new when they are not viable as future liveships.
If the plot feels a little meandering, what remains steady and strong is the sense of community among the nuns, particularly where external forces are trying to change (or co-opt) them or when personal issues threaten to intrude on their concept of faith, which here seems to be more oriented toward belief in the rightness of good works rather than adherence to dogma – and here I have to say that I appreciated how these nuns’ faith stands on the willingness to do good, to help the needy and, if possible, prevent the cruelty humans enjoy inflicting each other.
There are a few passing references to the difference between these space-faring nuns and the ones living on planets and conducting a more traditional monastic life of prayer and contemplation, references that I interpreted as respect for the kind of hands-on approach exhibited by the protagonists. It must also be said that physical distance from the Church – even before the nuns cut their ties with it and Earth – already prompted the nuns to find their own way to deal with spiritual matters, showing how doctrine cannot remain unchanged when the conditions for its applicability change due to the unpredictability of life away from humanity’s home planet.
Where the start of this second installment shows the nuns in a state of flux, the dramatic events happening toward the end of the book bring it out of the perceived middle-book syndrome and point toward a road fraught with dangers, yes, but also with great possibilities: while the short form of this novella suffers from a certain lack of development that cries out for a longer narrative span, it also leaves ample room for the expansion of the story in many possible directions. It will be interesting to see where it will lead us next….
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