Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Among other books, Claudia Gray has written two well-received Star Wars novels, Bloodline and Leia: Princess of Alderaan. I haven't read them, but I have seen good reviews. My own exposure to this author comes from her young-adult novel Fateful, which has a premise ("werewolves on the Titanic") that in the hands of a lesser writer could have failed miserably. But Gray pulls it off, and in so doing I noticed her skill in characterizations.
That ability is on full display here, with two characters that are so real they could step off the page into your living room. Noemi Vidal lives on one of Earth's five colony worlds, Genesis, which is as lush and green as Earth is brown and dying. Genesis deliberately limits its technology to preserve its environment; Earth wants to move its billions to Genesis, who fears that once here, they will start poisoning Genesis as well. Earth is trying to force the issue, sending armies of mechs (not really robots, although artificially created; they're a mixture of organic and mechanical and are more cyborgs) through the artificial wormhole connecting Earth and Genesis. The war is going badly for Genesis, to the point where they're planning a suicide mission known as the Masada Run: seventy-five ships ramming the Gate, killing themselves and taking it offline temporarily, hopefully allowing enough time for Genesis to build its defenses. Noemi is one of those who has volunteered for the Masada Run, and she expects to die in twenty days.
Abel is a mech, the first artificial intelligence (of twenty-six models total) created by Burton Mansfield. Abel has been drifting on an abandoned ship close to the Genesis Gate for thirty years. His very first chapter makes it clear that his isolation has changed him; deepened his mind, forced his brain to make connections it would not otherwise have made. During another Earth/Genesis skirmish, Noemi and her seriously injured friend Esther land on Abel's ship. Noemi, looking for medical supplies, restores power and frees Abel. His programming dictates that he obey and protect Burton Mansfield--but Mansfield is nowhere to be found. Therefore, since Abel believes as a mech his purpose is to obey humans, and Noemi is the only human to be found...he transfers his obedience to her, his enemy.
From this simple beginning springs a storyline that takes Abel on a journey where he will become, if not precisely human, far more than a programmed, obedient mech. Noemi wants to save her planet, and what begins as a trip to each of Earth's five colony worlds, hunting for the equipment that will let her destroy the Genesis Gate, ends with a realization that a resistance to Earth is arising and perhaps the Masada Run isn't necessary. Along the way, as you probably surmised, there is a slow-burning romance between the two: more on Abel's side than Noemi's, as he realizes that the changes that took place during his thirty years of isolation enable him to question his programming and eventually question and disobey his creator, Burton Mansfield. (There's a particular reason why Abel was created, and his finding out just what Mansfield intended for him is the last straw.) These same changes allow him to transcend his limitations--and love a human. At the end of the book, they aren't together, which is actually an unusual twist, but it felt completely earned. Noemi is able to stop the Masada Run, and Abel is set free, to make his own choices and live his own life.
Our two protagonists, and all the secondary characters, are marvelously handled throughout. This book is 500 pages, but for me it was absorbing from beginning to end. The only reason I'm giving it four stars instead of five is that a few aspects of the science and world felt a little handwavey. Nevertheless, this is a very good book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
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