Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns. ★★★1/2
Interested in a novel where lesbian space pirates fight a rogue AI? Then Barbary Station is the book for you.
Adda and Iridian decided that the best hope for their future lies in piracy. How else could they pay off their student debt? So they concoct a plan to get in with a piracy crew on Barbary Station, stealing a colony ship’s worth of supplies to prove their value. But once they arrive on Barbary Station, nothing is what they expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury but are hiding in a base rigged to the exterior of the station, traveling through the cracks and crannies of the station, always on the lookout. For the station might have been abandoned, but the security AI was never shut off. It’s decided that the pirates — and a group of refugees also on the station — are intruders, and it’s willing to use lethal force to get rid of them. Oh, and it shoots down any ship that attempts to leave. Adda, Iridian, and the rest of the pirates are doomed to a slow death, unless they can deal with the AI once and for all.
I enjoyed Barbary Station, but I also felt like it could have been better. Probably the biggest area for improvement is in the characters. All of the characters could be stronger, Adda and Iridian included. I’m glad the book chose to have them in an established romantic relationship (why don’t more books do this?), but I also would have liked to get more of a sense of what they saw in each other, why they’re together, that sort of thing. As is, I sort of felt like I was being told they loved each other without ever really feeling it.
However, it’s the supporting cast who really need more development. Probably the two most prominent are Adda’s younger brother, Pel, and the pirate captain, Sloane. Pel felt sort of like a character type — the cocky but lovable younger brother, but it worked all right. I would have liked to see more about Sloane, who’s this sort of mysterious figure hovering over the entire book. I got the impression there was some stuff going on with the Captain (important backstory?), but we never find out what. Maybe it’s being saved for the sequel? As for the rest of the cast, they never made much of an impression. And I think they need to, especially if Stearns wants those character deaths to have impact.
Plot-wise, Barbary Station could have been streamlined. I felt like there was some lulls in the pace, and I thought the story called for a consistently high pace and action that drives everything forward. There were a few spots where I could feel myself getting bored, especially in the beginning. Thankfully, the second half engaged my interest more.
I did like the overall set up with the killer AI. Pretty soon, Adda starts asking whether or not the AI’s awakened. In the language of the book, that means whether or not the AI’s become sentient. Supposedly, it’s not unknown, but awakened AI’s are always immediately destroyed. I liked the way Barbary Station dealt with the topic, and I’m interested to see where the sequel takes it.
And yes, I am planning on reading the sequel. For all its flaws, I found Barbary Station an enjoyable read. It’s not bad for a debut novel, and I’d love to see how R.E. Stearns grows as a writer with future books.