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Tracing The Stars

I read mostly science fiction and romance, and often a combination of the two.

Well written, but it felt like District 9 fanfiction

Cottonwood - R. Lee Smith


I have to be honest - after paying 7$ for this book, I was not expecting a D9 fanfiction. 

This book left me with some very mixed feelings. In a way, its stereotypical characters, lack-luster heroine and predictable, meandering plot served to make it the most clear-lined example of xenophobia in science fiction that I have read in a while. Everything in regards to the xenophobia was heightened while everything else was diluted. I think, if it weren't for the characters Sam and Sanford, I wouldn't have finished reading it.

The aliens are very alien, and so I give Smith two thumbs up for this. They are insect-like, making their differences from humans a glaring statement. The aliens and their characters were exceptionally well done. The physical descriptions, their personalities, their language, etc - all excellent. If this had been a book with them as the only lead focus (i.e. remove the 'heroine' Sarah) it would have been 4 or 5 stars. Loved it, despite the D9 similarities.

Much about the aliens, the concentration camp they are in and the story reminded me greatly of District 9. I believe the author was in the process of writing this before District 9 came out, but the uncanny similarities need to be pointed out. It was hard, for me, not to read this book as almost a District 9 fan-fiction (replace hero with Sarah and a love-story). It isn't, but a few factors had me reaching for the 3 stars.


The problems, for me, came down to Sarah the 'heroine', van Meyer and Piotr (the 'villains') and the overall flow of the book.

Sarah reads like a Mary Sue on steroids. She is beyond naive, innocent, altruistic, self-sacrificing, self-depreciating and a walking, humming, crying doormat. I lost count how many times in the book she cries, gets beat up, acts as a martyr or says how useless she is. I had an impossible time connecting with her in any way, which made it hard to feel the chemistry between her and Sanford. She was certainly sweet, and I did like the humming aspect of her character. I also liked her interactions with 'Jellybean' (Sanford's son) and her explorations into their world within the concentration camp. 

van Meyer and Piotr are your prototypical villains with zero redeeming qualities, no grey areas and who serve to simply represent xenophobia at its highest level. My main problem with this was van Meyer's portrayal. So, we are going to take a German and put him in charge of a concentration camp where he will use the 'bugs' to build him weapons, recycle trash for a profit and run biological experiments. Of all the nationalities (given the camp itself is in America) that Smith could have used, she went with German? This, at 6% into the book, nearly had me in a state of DNF. Perhaps this is a personal issue, but as a reader, my personal issues (and someone who majored in European History), are how I judge a book.

Lastly, the flow, plot and some style issues. There were a few info dumps (I can safely say I know what a PAZ is for) and repetition. There were also a few strange points where flashbacks occurred but were not clearly defined, leaving me momentarily confused and having to backtrack. (i.e. one moment Sanford is putting Jellybean to bed in a sheet and the next moment he is pissing on it... but that turns out to be a flashback) A break in paragraphs or italics would have made this so much easier for the reader. The short stories at the end that tried to show how other "Sarah's" existed and helped the aliens seemed like an odd inclusion, almost as if there were more fan-fiction style plotlines that the author wanted to explore but couldn't fit into the main core of the book. 

Overall, I liked the book. The scenes with the aliens and the world building done for them was fantastic - (but, it was District 9, so much of that was done by the movie) There were some points where it did feel like watching an episode on the Matting Habits Of Crickets, but that aside, I loved what Smith did with their culture, language, anatomy and even the strange sexual encounters.


I can now say I've read bug-sex. Do I get a badge?