Book review: Star Splitter by Matthew J. Kirby


BOok links: Amazon, Goodreads

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matthew J. Kirby is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of the middle-grade novels The Clockwork Three, Icefall, The Lost Kingdom, Infinity Ring Book 5: Cave of Wonders, and The Quantum League series, the Dark Gravity Sequence, and the Assassin’s Creed series, Last Descendants. He was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, he has won the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, the PEN Center USA award for Children’s Literature, and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award, and has been named to the New York Public Library’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing, and the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults lists. He is also a school psychologist, and currently lives in Utah with his wife and three step-kids.
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers (April 25, 2023) Print length: 320 pages 

I don’t care how many prep classes you take, or how many counseling sessions you go through, or how many waivers you sign, none of it actually prepares you to be burned apart by a laser, atom by atom.

Wow. I mean, seriously, wow.
I’m not typically a YA reader. But if there are more YA books like “Star Splitter” out there, I want them all. Right here, right now. This book has blown me away and easily takes the prize for the most thought-provoking read of the year. And let me tell you, it was 100% unputdownable.
The story takes readers on a journey through space and time, yet it keeps the stakes deeply personal and the main character completely relatable, if infuriating. It’s set in 2099 when deep-space exploration has become a reality and interstellar teleportation is the preferred mode of travel for intrepid explorers. Sounds safe, right? Well, in this case, something went very, very wrong.
Seventeen-year-old Jessica Mathers was supposed to join her parents and spend a year exploring a planet. Instead, she wakes up and finds herself stranded on the desolate and post-extinction planet, Carver 1061c, some fourteen light-years away from Earth. 
As Jessica explores the corridors of the lander, she discovers bloodstained handprints, silent and dark machinery, and fresh graves with names she doesn’t recognize. Talk about a chilling mystery! And then she meets herself – or rather a version of herself with a rather tragic memory of the last few weeks. They’re both clones, but they’re not the same. Also, the term clone is inaccurate – in this world, the body is perceived as a vehicle for information and genes. Whenever someone teleports, their body is destroyed and they wake up in a new one, freshly printed.
The narrative is split into two timelines, before and after, each following another Jessica’s POV. They build on each other and create excellent suspense and the feeling of dread. For example, some images that should portray Jessica’s crush are shredded by something with horns and claws. The planet is inhabited by intriguing lifeforms (purple ferns, bizarre ferret-like creatures). In theory, other sentient lifeforms went extinct but Kirby has some surprises for readers. 
The story works as a suspenseful mystery with well-researched science and Jessica’s emotional arc (she left the Earth unwillingly, didn’t have time to share her feelings with her crush, and has a troubled relationship with her parents who had chosen work over raising her). But it also gives a fascinating look at a theme that’s been obsessing me for most of my life – what makes us us? A soul? Genes? Experiences? All of them? Or maybe we’re just nothing but a temporary impression in the quantum fabric of the universe we don’t understand with our limited senses and feeble minds? At the quantum scale, classical laws that govern our experiences and perceptions are irrelevant, after all.
Star Splitter has enough material to make you think about such things and more. Impressively, it’s also a short book, written simply and concisely. I don’t think it contains any wasted scenes. Kirby’s ability to tackle complex themes in simple language deserves the highest praise.  
His ability to write a nonlinear story impressed me a lot, too. Plus, his writing is extremely vivid and imaginative and some scenes, while technically not horror, convey a sense of dread. The same can be told about the world – we get glimpses of its history and weird ecology but the focus is elsewhere. It’s more intimate.
An exceptional read. 

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