Background photo: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Susan Stolovy (SSC/Caltech) et al.
In Starsight, the highly anticipated follow-up to Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward, we continue Spensa Nightshade’s journey as she strives to become the best fighter pilot in the Defiant Defence Force (DDF). Set outside Sanderson’s Cosmere worlds, this series is an action-packed adventure sure to please anyone who has dreamed about reaching for the stars.
Skyward introduced readers to the harsh world of Detritus and gave us a full cast of characters to root for as they fought against mysterious aliens called the Krell. Starsight launches us on a new stretch of Spensa’s journey to learn more about herself, her father, her ship M-Bot, and even her pet, Doomslug the Destroyer. In the process, we get to learn more about the wider world and the war that is so desperately being waged by the DDF.
Checking in again from Beta Flight for this full spoiler review are Darci Cole, callsign: Blue, and Deana Whitney, callsign: Braid. (Note: If you are not ready for spoilers, you can check out our non-spoiler review here.)
In Starsight, Sanderson’s impressive ability to write action scenes is on full display right from page one. We’re thrown right into the mix—no flashbacks or memories from a younger Spensa this time around. Otherwise, he keeps the novel’s structure similar to Skyward, with five parts filled with action and cliffhangers (more on those cliffhangers in a moment).
Starsight is not the sequel many fans are expecting. Part 1 offers a flurry of activity, plenty of cool flying, and many clues about how the DDF has changed in the short six months that have passed since we last saw the crew, following the Battle of Alta Second. It teases at many of the changes and developments we were most excited to see….then Rig and his team of engineers then make a discovery which sets up much of the plot for the rest of the story. With this, Starsight launches fans into a new situation with new characters and a much wider universe.
This expanded worldbuilding in Starsight shows off Sanderson’s virtuosic imagination in the alien races he creates. Spensa thought the ongoing war was just about her homeworld of Detritus, but it turns out to be much wider in scope than anyone imagined. The fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance, pulled in every direction by political machinations more complex than our young protagonist is prepared to face, at the outset.
The more personal conflicts in the novel are thought-provoking. Sanderson is exploring what it means to be alive: What does it mean to be human? Can an artificially intelligent being like M-Bot be considered alive? Starsight asks readers to question conformity, the bounds of loyalty, and the nature of reality, even forcing Spensa to confront her fears about the “defect.” There are some deep philosophical thoughts underlying this book, wrapped around the driving action-adventure-spy narrative.
And now, we’ll get into our spoiler-specific discussion—if you’re not finished Starsight yet, you can come back to this article after reading to share your thoughts. Major spoilers for the rest of the book below…
[Sidenote: Brade in the novel is not Braid—this is not a tuckerization. Braid is very sad about this homophone.]
Seriously, if you have not read the book yet, stop now.
First up, our answers to the context-free reactions from our earlier non-spoiler article:
Braid: The “Oh! I can’t wait to hear more about this change!” moment involved Admiral Cobb—and all the changes that change in military rank represented.
And my “Nooooo!!!!!” moment was Hesho’s death. This hurt like Hurl’s death; it wasn’t a total surprise, but still painful and depressing anyway.
Blue: “I just love EVERY PART of this WHOLE conversation.” was my reaction to Spensa and M-Bot snarking in chapter 1.
“THIS IS AMAZING I HAD NOT CONSIDERED HOW USEFUL THAT WOULD BE!!!”: The moment Morriumur realizes they’re the perfect person to navigate a delver!
“HOLY SHIZ WHAT IS HAPPENING”…was when Spensa goes INSIDE the delver’s heart.
Braid: I’m still shaking my head about Spensa, Ms. Viking Warrior Bluntness, becoming a spy in this book. Of course, Sanderson has said that it’s more interesting to write when the wrong person is forced into the job anyway… In many respects, she did better than I expected playing Alanik of the UrDail. It did help that the UrDail were so human in their mannerisms.
Blue: Thankfully, she had M-Bot to remind her (multiple times) not to give herself away by violating their customs. I think that early on, she’s very much acting on instinct and does have the desire to lash out or be her blunt self, but throughout her journey she definitely learns how to pay attention and be more subtle.
One thing I was looking forward to that we didn’t get in this sequel was more time with Skyward flight. I definitely missed our old friends from the first book, even though we got to make some pretty awesome new ones, here.
Braid: Yes, we meet a whole new cast of character after barely spending any time with our friends from Skyward. Several of the conflicts I expected to play a bigger role in this book were dealt with in a sentence or three. The speed with which Ironsides was dismissed and Cobb put in her place left me with whiplash.
Then after the introduction of the delvers and Alanik plotlines, the book takes off in a whole new direction from Skyward—that direction being often being much darker than I anticipated. M-Bot’s fate and the human slaves were a shock, in terms of the expectations I’d started off with, based on the last book.
Blue: The entire story was a shock to me, if I’m being honest. I did appreciate getting to see what humans are like and how they’re treated outside of Detritus. We—and Spensa—had been led to believe that Detritus held the very last remnants of the human race. And yet, very early on, we learn that humans are still around, and treated basically as trained animals. Brade was an interesting character, though I’ll admit I like her about as much as I liked Ironsides.
Braid: Indeed, I did not like Brade the licensed human, but can appreciate her role in the book. She serves as a foil for Spensa, and brought thought-provoking cultural insight to the storyline along with the plot drama. In one way, the Superiority’s treatment of humans and other races provided a baseline for M-Bot’s questions about himself and what it meant to be alive. What made a group worthy of consideration, according to the Superiority? Spensa learning the real nature of her enemies reminds me of Kaladin’s current conflict in Stormlight Archive. And it proved key in dealing with one delver.
Blue: One, right. And that makes me wonder how many more delvers there might be.
Braid: The Superiority’s emphasis on conformity, I think, is Sanderson’s way of highlighting a potentially dangerous mindset. Thankfully Starsight is populated by a range of people from the Superiority and non-Superiority races, demonstrating a wider range of attitudes. The Dions and Morriumur, as a combined individual, in particular, were a fascinating contrast to the kind of races we often see in fantasy books. Even while the term “lesser species” kept itching at me.
Blue: Same. I think it was amazing how Sanderson used microaggression terms like that to show us, and Spensa, how that mindset can become so casually pervasive.
Overall, I thought the worldbuilding in Starsight was incredible. It always amazes me how much detail Sanderson can convey in such a short space. Some of my favorite descriptions were of the delver training maze. It definitely became harder to read when Spensa started seeing things, though. It made me wish she’d had M-Bot with her.
Braid: I missed his mushroom jokes too. There were times I felt like Sanderson was showing off his powers of imagination in all the right ways… The descriptions of the new DDF platforms were so stark and harsh. Then Starsight was the opposite, full of color, movement, and various life forms. One of my favorite scenes was the anti-gravity water park Morriumur took Spensa to in Part 4. I want to go there with my kids. It was such a lovely moment, a pause before the action up started again.
Blue: Speaking of action, the pacing in this book was INSANE. For so many chapters we just go-go-go, and rarely do we, or Spensa, get a moment to breathe. I will say that this aspect helped me forget that I was missing the old characters from the first book too much; then thankfully, just when I started missing them again, we’d get an interlude from Jorgen.
Braid: The Jorgen chapters were welcome updates on the action at home. Jorgen and Gran-Gran together were a delight. But the teaser with the multiple Doomslugs—oh, that was exciting. The reveal that Doomslug was the cytonic hyperdrive was a moment of “Yes, theory confirmed!” for me. A few other beta readers seemed to think that was already confirmed information. Either way, now we all know the truth! Much like the truth Spensa learned about her inability to judge people correctly, like Cuna or Brade.
Blue: Oh yes. Learning new physicality and expressions—it had to have been interesting to write, and I’d love to ask Sanderson about that process sometime. I also loved how Spensa spends all this time believing SO HARD that every single individual on Starsight is putting on a show just to keep her in the dark. And I was relieved to see her come around and embrace the knowledge that just because people are different, or just because one small faction of a race does harm, doesn’t mean the rest of that group are equally to blame or at fault. Seeing Spensa recognize the humanity in people different from herself was such a powerful moment—one I think a lot of us could learn from.
Blue: Okay, let’s talk relationships. I’m a shipper, as I’ve mentioned here before, and so I was really hoping for some #SpinFace time in Starsight, but alas, we only got a couple of scenes. (Though they were very, very good scenes—thank you, Brandon Sanderson!) As I said above: Jorgen’s chapters came at exactly the right moments for me. As soon as I started missing Detritus, we’d go back for just a bit and I could get my fix. Getting to see Jorgen learning from Gran-Gran was probably my favorite scene in the entire book.
Braid: I wanted more Quirk and Rig, but Hesho quickly became my new favorite character. In terms of Vapor and her race, I want to know more. There were so many new elements introduced, the book could have felt info-heavy, yet Sanderson seemed to strike the right balance between showing vs. telling, which included limiting the infodumps.
Blue: Honestly, Spensa is better at making friends than she thinks she is, especially when she’s flying. Hesho, Morriumur, Vapor—they all took to her almost immediately because she used her considerable abilities and helped them out of trouble. Spensa spent all of Book One learning how to fly in a team, and it seemed as though she had forgotten some of that in the six months between these books. But having to train and coach other pilots, in the same way she had been taught, definitely brought her back around. It was good to see her learning to be a leader and passing on the knowledge she’d gained from her time in Cobb’s class.
Braid: A few of her thoughts about Cobb made me laugh. Yes, learn your teacher’s pain! Also, the tech in the story made for some interesting plot twists—it’s easy to be a spy when no one knows holographic images are possible. Spensa’s connection to M-Bot helped keep him around, even while he wasn’t physically nearby.
Blue: Thank goodness she had M-Bot to help, even from a distance. One aspect of the story that hurt me to read was leaving M-Bot basically grounded for most of the book. I don’t know if it was intentional on the author’s part, but it struck me that this might have contributed to the identity crisis he has over his own mortality. Being left alone and unable to do anything for yourself for days at a time leaves a fast-thinking computer a lot of time to mope. I did not enjoy watching one of my favorite characters basically develop anxiety. And then to have him torn apart and have to rewrite himself? I cried. I was definitely mad at Sanderson for that, but I’m hoping the payoff in the last two books will be worth the pain.
Braid: Oh, don’t remind me; I screamed at the book when that reveal happened. My chant is “He will get fixed.” Throughout the book I was mad at Winzik most of the time. He and Brade took over as my hated characters. He was just so smarmy, with his little expressions of: “My, my! So aggressive.” In contrast to Cuna, which I’ll admit, took me time to understand them (but not as long as Spensa). The bullied girl has reasons for not being great at reading people.
Blue: She really is horrible at reading people, though in her defense their expressions and mannerisms are very different from her own.
Braid: At least we all read Winzik as a jerk correctly. His plans to dominate the universe more then the Superiority already does, is chilling. In contrast to Cuna, who was trying hard to befriend Spensa by mimicking the UrDail people, with human-like expressions so foreign to the Dions. It would be like me, someone who is almost tone-deaf, trying to mimic a tonal language. Nothing would come out right. Spensa learned to read Morriumur’s Dion expressions, but could not understand Cuna’s expressions until almost too late. Cuna knows the Superiority cannot maintain their control of interstellar travel, so wants the other worlds to join them in alliances. Thus, I refuse to believe Cuna is dead; that news report is just another of Winzik’s lies.
Of course the book ended with Spensa launched into the Nowhere space where the delvers live and more unknowns. With a mess left behind on Starsight. The ending was such a cliffhanger—I’m trying to be optimistic for book three, as everyone climbs out of the chaos.
Blue: Yeah, I’m crossing my fingers that books three and four are going to feature some super amazing payoff moments, because after Starsight, I’m ready to see our characters finally get a WIN! Also, I thought the delvers were going to be the Big Bad of the whole series, but we’ve just discovered they’re “people” like anyone else, just… big? So what will we be doing, and who will we be fighting, for another two books? Winzik and his human minions??? That seems less scary than the delvers did, but that might just be because we don’t have all the details yet…
Braid: I’m wondering if there will be a mythical Big Bad to face or if the wider story will focus on politics. I now think book 3 and 4 will split the PoV more evenly between Spensa and Jorgen. She’s off in the Nowhere meeting a new group of characters again, while hopefully finding a way to fix M-Bot and get back home. It would be interesting to see Jorgen working with Spensa’s new allies to save Detritus and the Superiority from Winzik’s domination plot. The new characters were developed well in this book, but if they don’t play a role in the rest of the larger story, then what was the point?
Blue: I agree 100%. We spent a lot of time in these two books learning about the galaxy and those who inhabit it; hopefully books three and four will see the characters we’ve come to love learning to work together and make things better for everyone involved.
All in all, Starsight is definitely a wild ride! From new friendships and new alliances to gaining more knowledge about the universe Spensa lives in, we got answers to a lot of questions raised by the first book in this series, while plenty of new challenges and questions emerged: How will Spensa navigate the Nowhere? Who will she meet there? How will she get back to Detritus and save her people?
Unfortunately, we won’t get to find out for another few years, as Sanderson has some Cosmere novels to write before the next installment in the Skyward series. But boy, are we looking forward to seeing what Spensa does next…
Darci Cole—Callsign: Blue—is an aspiring author of young adult and middle grade fantasy, audiobook narrator, Harry Potter Superfan, and Sanderson Beta Reader. You’ll recognize her by the blue streak in her hair, and can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram as darcicoleauthor. M-Bot is her Patronus.
Deana Whitney—Callsign: Braid—is a Sanderson Beta Reader, a historian, a cook, and Workshop Director at JordanCon. Known as Braid_Tug on Tor, she is working on another Cosmere Food article. If you want to hear more about the origins of the Dion race, listen to Writing Excuses. Worldbuilding is the focus this season, episode 14.32 is directly related to Starsight.