Tin Star is basically Babylon 5 for teens, if the Babylon 5 space station were nearly abandoned and hostile to humans rather than run by them. If you haven’t: you should really get on that.
OK, I’ll give you non-B5 fans a bit more. Our human protagonist, Tula, is left for dead on the Yertina Feray, a mostly-derelict space station in the middle of nowhere. Humans aren’t well-regarded there, and Tula has no safety net. This means she has no money to purchase food or other basic necessities. The law-keepers on the station (if they can be called that) aren’t predisposed to be understanding of her predicament, especially since her story doesn’t check out with their sources.
Luckily – sort of – for Tula, she does find some sympathetic aliens, primarily one named Heckleck, an unsavory type who makes a living on the station by dealing on the black market – plus other not-strictly-legal business practices. She makes a home for herself in the underguts (basically B5’s Down Below), running errands for Heckleck. She learns to navigate this human-less world while trying to figure out what happened to her family, how to get off the station, and how to go about getting revenge on the person who put her in this situation.
And then humans arrive on the station, and she’s suddenly not alone. The humans are young, like her, and have motivations of their own. Tula must decide if her needs align with theirs – and again evaluate who she can trust.
There’s a lot here that I love. It’s so solidly scifi – set in space, chock full of aliens, lots of cool tech. And the aliens aren't mostly humanoid, either. They're sentient and strange (to our human sensibilities), and not just physically. The way they socialize isn't what you'd expect, for example. Creating aliens that don't act like humans in every way is difficult, so it's definitely commendable when an author is moderately successful at it.
Because the socialization among the aliens is different, because Tula is such an outsider, it makes the relationships between her and the aliens especially interesting. She constantly misunderstands what's being said to her. Things that would be easy to infer among humans are impossible to deduce among aliens. The relationship between Tula and an alien official on the space station who sympathizes with her is a good example of this - he's such a mystery for so many pages, so when a moment of clarity occurs, it's all the more gratifying for the reader as a result.
The relationship between Tula and Heckleck is equally interesting. Heckleck is not really a protector; he's out for himself and isn't afraid to do what it takes to survive in the underguts. But Tula affects him in some way. She learns to understand the unsaid things behind the things he says. In any book featuring interactions between humans and aliens, the author is always drawing parallels, however slight or unintended, with interactions between vastly different human cultures. Good SFF always makes us think more deeply about our own world, and I think Tin Star has a lot to offer in that area.
So there were definitely aspects that I liked. The humans' arrival, on the other hand, while integral to the plot, was a dull point for me. They simply weren't as interesting as the aliens on the station, and I never cared about their needs as much as I did Tula's and her alien acquaintances.
I also found the story, overall, to be a bit sketchy. By that I mean I wish all aspects of it were more fleshed-out. It's a fast-paced book - perhaps a bit too fast-paced. Perhaps Castellucci did her job of creating an interesting future too well, since I often wished she could have slowed down a bit and let us get to know it - and its denizens - better. Characters are interesting but stop just short of being living and breathing. I didn't feel completely absorbed in the space station, either (in my mind's eye it just looks like Babylon 5).
Would I read a sequel? Absolutely. It would give me more of the depth and details that I want, plus Castellucci doesn't wrap everything up at the end. I do want to know more of Tula's story.
Hand Tin Star to readers who want fast-paced science fiction and who may be tired of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories. It may suit fans of other stories set in space, such as Amy Kathleen Ryan's Glow or Beth Revis' Across the Universe, though both those titles feel more intense and dystopian-esque than Castellucci's book (the fate of humankind is not really at stake here). Christian Schoon's Zenn Scarlett is more similar in tone and features some creative alien life as well.
Tin Star will be published February 25. A review copy was provided by the publisher.