If you’ve ever secretly entertained a plan that involved going on a crime spree in order to pay off your student debts, you might enjoy Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns.
Our two heroines in this story are recently-graduated engineers. Adda is a software engineer and Iridian is a mechanical engineer. They’re also lovers, and they just want to spend their lives together. The problem is that the economy is a wreck so despite their education and marketable skills, there’s not a lot of hope for legitimate work that would pay a living wage.
So of course they hijack a space ship and run off to join a pirate crew.
That’s right, this is a book about lesbian space pirates.
Barbary Station has a lot going for it. It has a diverse cast (including an androgynous pirate captain who remains ungendered for the entire story and had a fabulous sense of style), likable protagonists, and high stakes for the heroines. And yet, somehow it just never worked for me.
I feel like Stearns had good ideas, but her writing skills needed to be ratcheted up just another notch or two. Especially in the early chapters, the POV would sometimes switch between Adda and Iridian in a single scene, or even feel like it was drifting to a minor character. Eventually, as their pirate duties kept them apart, their narration became more distinct. However, as a reader, wishy-washy POV is one of my biggest pet peeves and this set me off the book from the start.
While I liked Adda and Iridian, I felt like most of the secondary characters didn’t really get much development, so that when some of them died, it didn’t carry an emotional impact. Even by the end, I had a hard time remembering which space pirate was which.
Most importantly, Barbary Station lacked a certain sense of urgency. It turns out that the pirates are trapped on an abandoned station with a crazed AI that wants to kill them and shoots down their ships if they try to escape. This should make for a tense sci-fi thriller, but the pace was so slow that it put me to sleep most nights (to be fair, I’m a little sleep-deprived right now so maybe any book would put me to sleep). It took me two weeks to finish this novel because I was just not engaged with it.
That’s not to say that nothing happened. There were frequent attacks and set-backs. However, for some reason they felt to me like they were… randomly generated. I know there are writing tools out there that suggest plot twists and story beats, and I couldn’t help but feel that the author was using something like that to decide which attacks the AI made, or what other issues came up. For instance, towards the end of the book, there’s a problem with the ventilation system. That’s a big problem on a space station, but they were already working on trying to defeat the AI and deal with an illness and some unwanted guests on the station. Why throw another problem in to the mix? Ultimately, it never even really came up again.
There were moments that really worked for me. I especially loved Adda and Iridian’s relationship. It’s rare to have a book that features an established couple, and often such couples are shown as being perfectly in sync, or they’re cruising towards a dramatic break-up. The relationship at the heart of this story felt real. They love each other, they understand each other’s quirks and flaws, but sometimes one would do something that irritated the other due to the stressful situation they were in.
Over all, Barbary Station got stronger towards the end, and I was really pulling for the characters to succeed. I feel like if the author had gone back to the beginning and re-written the first few chapters with a stronger voice, and if some of the random problems had been cut, this would have been a solid read. I’m on the fence about whether I’ll pick up the rest of the trilogy.
If you’ve read this one, I’d love to hear your take on it.
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