Spin The Sky by Katy Stauber – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews Katy Stauber’s latest novel, a space opera reimagining of one of the most classical tales in human history.
“Stunningly smart and deceptively unique, Spin The Sky is a new classic for modern times.” ~The Founding Fields
I have always been fascinated with Greek mythology, whether it had to do with the demi-god heroes like Hercules or Achilles, or the gods themselves like Dionysus and Apollo. More than any other, Greek mythology is the most fascinating subject I’ve ever delved into. This is why I loved the Kevin Sorbo-starrer show Hercules, the Lucy Lawless-starrer Xena, and various other inspirations of that source material such as the original Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson. Of course, the new Clash of Titans and Immortals are just plain terrible, revoltingly so. Hence why a GOOD adaptation of the Greek myths is something I’m always on the lookout for.
Katy Stauber takes one of the oldest myths, the epic poem The Odyssey, and brings it forward into the near future as a space opera. The inspiration isn’t so clear at first, but once you read that the main protagonist’s wife is named Penelope who is being courted by several prominent spacers, that he is returning from a great war after more than a decade, and that he has adventures involving Charybdis and Scylla, it is all readily apparent. Spin The Sky is not a straight adaptation of that source material however, and Stauber weaves a narrative that gets deliciously complex as it progresses.
The hero of Stauber’s reimagining isn’t Odysseus, but Cesar Vaquero, the man who ended the great Spacer War by wiping most of Mexico off the map. He is the kind of hero that even his allies are wary of him, some of them even desiring his death for “stealing the limelight” from them. Cesar Vaquero is the kind of character with whom you can spend a casual relaxed evening having drinks and trading war stories. He is a disarmingly straight-forward conversationalist, a former ranch hand who joined the great war to protect his family, and has become notorious for his actions. He inspires fierce loyalty in his friends and the people under his command, in a way that most heroes do: its instinctual, inherent in their character, something that cannot really be put into any words. In the first few pages of the novel, Cesar is shown as a capable ship captain who cares about his shipmates and will go to any lengths to protect them. That quickly transforms to show us a more personal side of him, when he returns to his home orbital colony, Ithaca, intending to reunite with his family.
The novel is not laid out in the traditional sense, that is, it is not a straightforward third person or first person narrative. Cesar’s son Trevor has set out to gather stories about his father, who has been absent all his life. He wants to know who his father is, what his friends, his men, and others think of him. As such, a majority of the chapters are told from the the view points of these people. This alternates with chapters from the perspectives of both Cesar and Penelope, giving the whole concept a very comprehensive and cohesive feel. This approach allows Stauber to really explore her characters, to give them a depth that otherwise would not have been so readily apparent.
For me, it turned Cesar into a character I got to be friends with. Yes, Cesar is a mass murderer, but so is any soldier in a war. Him dropping a tactical nuke on Mexico was a pre-emptive strike against the military might of the nations of Earth, to put them off the offensive and keep his home orbital safe, to keep his family safe. Cesar is unrepentant about his actions as well, he doesn’t get all angsty and self-loathing about what he did, what he had to do in those times. For him, it was a question of kill or be killed, the rest of the system be damned. That added more of a dimension to him. I did not have to worry about a protagonist who wallowed in self-pity. Stauber gives him dialogue that is witty and charming, adding more to his personality and the “myths” about him. His adventures since the end of the war bear that out all the time.
Penelope, unlike her mythological counterpart, is a much more proactive character. She rarely reacts to things, taking charge of everything and anything around her instead. She isn’t content to just sit at home with her son and wait for her husband to return. She runs the ranch herself when her husband goes away and becomes someone who comes to have some major clout in the business and political world. Part of that has to do with the fact that her steak is the best steak in the entire system, as she owns the biggest and best cow-herd amongst all the orbitals. It turns out that spacers just love their steak so much. She becomes that proverbial “most eligible woman” in space society, with suitors arriving at her doors from Earth even.
Set against her returned husband, who arrives as a drifter and someone she fails to recognise, she stands very well on her own. She is just as compelling and strong a character as Cesar. Where its her husband’s war record and relationships formed at that time that define and inform his character, with Penelope its her business and personal life. As the estranged daughter of an influential Earth-based business tycoon, she has some great business smarts, skills that put her in the position as I mentioned above. Again, space steak! Of all the reasons that a character could be famous for in-setting, that certainly stands out as the funniest and incredibly realistic. I mean, just consider it. The spacers can’t afford to import steak from Earth given the high cost in transport and what not. There has to be a local source, and that just happens to be the Vacquero ranch on Ithaca, run by a smart, intelligent woman who is single (albeit a mother of a teenaged son) and beautiful to match. She is irresistible in a way that is never derogatory.
I’d like to say that I enjoyed reading about Penelope far more than I did Cesar, but he is just too much of a rogue that he tops it out. Much like how Han Solo is the more likable character than Leia is.
There are several other characters in the novel who add to the story, such as Cesar’s various acquaintances (whether his enemies or allies during the Spacer War), the various ranch-hands who work for Penelope, Cesar’s father, and his son. Stauber’s characterisation is plain superb. I cared for every character, whether minor or major, good or bad. The narrative’s often humourous tone was a major part of my attraction to them. Not to mention that all the neat little twists in this reimagined Odyssey. For example, Scylla and Charybdis aren’t the great “monsters” of old, but orbital stations that are hostile to most Spacers. Where a naval detachment fail to “take care of them”, Cesar comes up with this highly ingenuous method can essentially be termed as “killing two birds with one stone”. It is dramatic and shocking, very different from how Odysseys tackled them himself.
The novel is full of such twists on the original. Stauber takes the mythological archetypes and turns them on their heads to create something that is truly fascinating.
The culture that Stauber creates in the novel, with regards the spacers, the diverse orbital stations, etc was just incredible. So much variety! It can get a little too much at times, but never boring. Some things are just improbably, like giant butterfly bio-constructs that allow Cesar to fly from orbital to another, but their charm is that very improbability. In another setting, I would have outright dismissed such a concept, but Stauber makes it so convincingly plausible that I can’t argue against it. Her spacer culture is quirky, highly quirky, and madness abounds. But that’s Greek mythology for you, full of so many fantastical things that a reimagining such as Spin The Sky feels very true to source. Athena springing alive from Zeus’ mind? Gods having sex with mortals while disguised as animals? Come on. More than any other novel, Spin The Sky demands that you leave your analytical mindset aside, that you enter this world and just have fun. There are no hard and fast rules that govern how things work (by which I mean that Stauber doesn’t break the laws of physics or something). Things happen, there is a method to the author’s madness, and everything works out in the end. The payoff with the ending is just perfect.
Spin The Sky is a novel that I’d love to read again, and again, and again. It’s that good. Also, space steak!