Book Review: Barbary Station

Originally posted on Geek Girl Authority

Barbary Station
By R.E. Stearns

My Edition:
Hardcover, 435 pages
2017, Saga Press
ISBN: 9781481476867

Iridian and Adda have a plan – they’ll hijack an interstellar space station en route to Io and deliver it to a band of pirates living in luxury on the fabled Barbary Station, then get paid enough to live their own luxurious lives and pay off Adda’s student loans. Hijacking the ship goes smoothly enough, but when the women arrive at Barbary, rather than find themselves lauded and initiated into a pirate crew, they’re met with suspicion and immediately tasked to rescue the crew (and now themselves) from the insane AI holding the station hostage. 

Lesbian space pirates versus a murderous AI? Sign me the hell up! The result left me feeling conflicted, however. Buckle up!

We’re immediately thrust into the story and Adda and Iridian’s dreams for their future, all of which intrigued me. The action throughout the book is kept at a fairly steady pace – Adda’s introverted and tech-minded observations are offset by Iridian’s near constant action scenes. Once the couple is aboard the ship, there’s a lot going on. The pirates are living in the walls in order to stay alive, a bunch of refugees who left their planet after a war are living inside parameters set by the AI and there’s a handful of doctors the ship seems to want to protect.

For the most part, I found it easy to imagine what was happening, but when it came to the general layout of the station, most notably any scenes taking place on its surface, I was utterly lost. I would have loved a map (or maps!) of the ship to get a better handle on where everyone was traveling to and from. In those cases, I just imagined an amalgamation of various space stations I’ve seen in movies, but it took me out of the story to have to do so.

I loved the unsettling tone set early on by the AI – I’m a sucker for “evil AI” plots, the creepier the better! Nothing quite so frightening as imagining floating through the deadly darkness of space inside of a machine hell-bent on killing you. (Note: It wasn’t until photographing the book that I noticed the A and I in the title were highlighted – clever!) The AI in this book, known as AegiSKADA, considers the pirates to be the biggest threat and is constantly sending drones to kill them if they leave their hideout and eventually its tactics evolve to more sinister means. AegiSKADA does still want to keep the station intact however and must do its best not to do too much damage when exterminating the pests (hence why it doesn’t just bomb an entire portion of the ship). Iridian and Adda’s presence only upsets it further.

I found the rest of the cast to be less interesting than the AI, with the exception of Iridian. She and Adda are ridiculously opposite. Iridian is a tall, dark-skinned, bald, well-muscled, boisterous, ex-soldier with a really cool, high-tech battleshield. Adda is a short, light-skinned, red and purple haired, self-consciously curvaceous, socially awkward, techie with what’s essentially a hardware jack in her nostril. I couldn’t understand why they were together – they clearly cared about each other (or Adda attempted to worry about Iridian when she wasn’t in a drug-induced tech trance) but I could never get a sense of what brought them together, or kept them together. They felt more like friends than lovers, and while this doesn’t largely affect the story, their relationship felt out of place.

Iridian has enough personality for two main characters and I friggen loved her. She’s strong, smart and won’t take any shit, unless of course she has to, for the betterment of her and Adda’s future. She knows when to stand down and when to kick ass. In contrast, Adda seemed put upon any time she had to interact with a human other than Iridian (or sometimes even Iridian) and spent much of her time in a drugged state to achieve a deeper connection with AegiSKADA. She’s a sort of hacker (the book describes her skill far better than I could), but in order to get into the ship’s systems she has to take a drug and then plug into the system so she can manipulate it in her workspace (I’ll come back to that.) Adda just fell flat for me.

Adda’s brother, Pel, has a few interesting scenes, but was mostly the clichéd troublemaker. The crew was too large to get to know. There were some diverse relationships among the members and the Captain’s gender is never declared (the Captain also had some fabulous sounding outfits), but I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to any of them.

So, Adda’s workspace: her specialty in systems engineering has led her to get implants that allow her to literally connect herself to a machine’s systems. In order to concentrate she takes drugs and enters a strange state of mind where the information she is looking for becomes a surreal, interactive experience. For example, during one session the information was presented in the form of moths and other bugs, pinned to the wall as though preserved by an entomologist. Clouds of undead bugs would then flicker and move about the room and at one point something bloody hit a window? It was like reading a strange dream (or nightmare, in my book.) I loved this mix of human and computer and I’ve never read anything quite like it.

What lost me much of time, however, was all the technical talk. I’m assuming Stearns knows what she’s talking about, because it’s all Greek to me. Sometimes I can gloss over these details and just accept that stuff is happening because people know way more about science and technology than I do. Other times I get caught up and confused, struggling to make sense of the words on the page. This was one of those times. This certainly won’t be an issue for everyone though.

In the end, this was a middle of the road read for me. I expected to be blown away, but the tech-talk made it a dense, slow read and the characters were lackluster. Iridian is awesome though and AegiSKADA was as creeptastic as I could have hoped for, so it balanced out. If you like a lot of science and technology in your sci-f and you love AI-driven plots, certainly check this out.

I received this book for free from Geek Girl Authority in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions in this post are my own.
Stearn’s site

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