Parts of this review sound a little harsh, but overall I liked the vibe and conclusion of Eleanor Lerman’s The Stargazer’s Embassy.
The Stargazer’s Embassy explores the frightening phenomenon of alien abduction from a different point of view: in this story, it is the aliens who seem fearful of Julia Glazer, the woman they are desperately trying to make contact with. Violent and despairing after the murder of the one person she loved, a psychiatrist who was studying abductees, Julia continues to rebuff the aliens until her relationships with others who have met “the things,” as she calls them, including a tattoo artist, a strange man who can take photographs with the power of his mind, and an abductee locked up in a mental hospital, force her deeper into direct alien contact and a confrontation about what death means to humans and aliens alike. (blurb from Goodreads)
What attracted me to this book is that it promises a new angle on the classic alien-abduction tale. I picked it up to learn why aliens—typically otherworldly and powerful—are so frightened of Julia Glazer. For much of the book, her apparent lack of curiosity and deep loathing strike an odd chord. The aliens are creepy when they show up unexpectedly, but they seem sad, even a little pathetic:
It was wearing a long, ill-fitting tan raincoat with prominent epaulets and a pair of what looked like white go-go boots. On its head was a baseball cap pulled low over its face, and it had completed this ridiculous outfit with a pair of oversize sunglasses that might have been worn by some would-be glam rocker a decade ago.
“Is this what you think people look like now?” I snapped at the thing. (Loc 250)
Other characters, the abductees studied by Julia’s psychiatrist boyfriend, John, report terrifying and disturbing encounters. That The Stargazer’s Embassy features two types of aliens (creepy experimenters and lousy dressers) widens the mystery of why Julia is special. Despite the range, most of the mythology centers around the story of Barney and Betty Hill and Betty’s infamous star map. (If you’re not familiar with this particular tale, I recommend looking it up. It’ll grab your imagination whether or not you think the truth is out there.)
The conclusion of the book is surprisingly nuanced and thoughtful, but the first half has its weaknesses. The back cover names John the “one person [Julia] loved,” but their connection is thin. John is a poorly drawn character. His only dialogue is exposition: theories about alien abductions, his work with the abductees, and vague details about his past. His dialogue advances the plot and story, but does nothing to make him three-dimensional. Julia might as well date a Wikipedia article. Scenes that don’t include one of his lectures are typically summarized:
I found [John] drinking coffee with Nicky. They both teased me about sleeping late, but they could probably tell I wasn’t in the mood to be joked with, so they let that go. I poured myself some coffee and devoted myself to reading a copy of the local paper that was lying on the kitchen table while the two men talked about the traffic that John and I might encounter on the drive home, since we planned to leave soon. After a while, John said he would go pack up our things so we could get going. (Loc 1430)
When I read this scene, it struck me that John had spoken so few non-expository lines that I had no idea how he might joke with Julia or make small talk with Nick. I had to take Julia’s word that she cared about him because there was so little warmth or emotion between them. Part of this is due to the closed-off nature of her character, but the other part comes from not having a clear image of John. Once he’s gone, Julia relies more on herself, and the side characters are kept to the side. It’s okay that she doesn’t have deep relationships with them because she doesn’t claim to.
I was pleasantly surprised that the story I delayed reading in case it was too frightening or unsettling turned out to be clever and imaginative. There’s a lot of potential here, but the poor characterization of John kept me from investing in the first half of the book. The second half redeems it just because it is such a different take on why aliens might want or need to contact humans. It is thought-provoking and eerie in all the best ways.
Overall: 3.6 The first half is comparatively weak and Julia is one of few fully-articulated characters. The book gets points for originality and creativity even though it’s flat in places.
NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mayapple Press (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads