The Starcaster Chronicles

⭐⭐⭐⭐ based on 1 review.

Written by Tim Buckley.

tl;dr: A thrilling ride with a fun central gimmick and some interesting, novel ideas, even if the main plot is very reminiscent of genre classics like Firefly.


Graphic Novels

Volume One

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

If Analog & D-Pad is homage-meets-parody, then Starcaster is just pure homage. There are strong Firefly and Farscape vibes, with dashes of Star Wars and even Aliens in between; interestingly, there are also a lot of fantasy tropes. I guess quite a lot of sci-fi ends up mirroring fantasy kindreds, but it's rarely as clear-cut as in Starcaster, where individual species are clearly orc or elf analogues, the latter even including a drow "sub-type". Which isn't to say that the world-building lacks imagination – far from it! From crystalline hearing organs, to acidic sweat (and all the impracticalities that come with it), to an entire deep history based on panspermia and geoengineering, there's a huge amount of fascinating ideas and potential, which is explored well and remains deeply interesting throughout.

I'm a particular fan of the Aug as a concept. There's a lot of the Elder Scrolls Dwemer in them, alongside a healthy amount of Aliens style Engineers or Marvel-like Celestials, but they work well and provide an intriguing backdrop to the rest of the story unfolding. They also help explain some common problems with sci-fi worlds, such as why so many sentient species follow a similar body plan; in this case, it's because a lot of sentience is partially designed by the Aug from a common "seed", a way of playing god on a whole new level, which for a species with the ability to sculpt planets in mere moments is still pretty impressive.

So the surrounding world that Buckley has created feels rich, diverse, and filled with endless possibilities. Into that, we have the aforementioned Firefly-esque political system, with a core Federation rife with corruption, as well as a Star Trek-like cold war with a barbaric neighbouring empire. None of it feels that fresh – heck, even our main character is a very Mal Reynolds type, what with being ex-police turned smuggler, with rogueish charm and a heart of gold – but it's still highly enjoyable to read. If you enjoy these tropes, then Starcaster does them excellent service, and weaves in just enough originality to make you set aside constant comparisons and just go along for the ride.

Of course, in its native webcomic format, Starcaster did have one particularly original idea (original to the format, not original overall 😅): a choose your own adventure narrative. As new issues are released, fans can vote on certain actions or decisions that the main characters can make, and these can have fairly large impacts on the ongoing story. Obviously, by the time an issue is printed into a collection like this, those stories are long locked off, and I was glad to see that any original references to the choices had been removed, which might otherwise have distracted from the narrative. Instead, at the end of the book you get a text description of what each choice was, including some fascinating insight into what might have been. I was most surprised to see how vastly different the ending could have been! Almost every character could have been killed, at times from seemingly minor decisions (many of which came down to only a few percentage points in it on what was chosen). In one alternative universe, Cort would have been killed; in another, Nyrah dies. The titular Starcaster – an ancient superweapon and the thing effectively keeping the cold war "cold" – can end up destroyed, lost, fused to Cort (in the ending that we got), or even in the hands of the villains. The Grin – a menacing mix of Boba Fett and Darth Vader – had an opportunity to be killed halfway through the first part of the story, fundamentally changing which groups end up at the finale. It's a really fascinating way of going about story crafting and means that the story has a strong D'n'D vibe to it where anything can happen (so perhaps those fantasy elements and hallmarks are more warranted than it first appears).

It's also really interesting that I feel like, in pretty much all instances, the fans chose the most interesting outcome, even when given fairly minor choices and very little information. On the one hand, that may just be a credit to Buckley's writing, that no matter which way events had unfolded he would have made something engrossing and fun, but it also somehow makes the character's choices feel more real and important. So, even in this format, where I as a reader can have no meaningful way of engaging with this underlying gimmick, I still think it adds a huge amount to the series.

The result is a compelling narrative, filled with interesting characters, and set in a world that feels rich and worth exploring more deeply. The core plot may crib from classic sci-fi shows and books quite a bit, but these tropes work well for a reason, and when the result is this fun to read I don't really mind at all. I'd have liked a little more visual diversity within the world (and do feel that the implied reality of black humans in this universe being a distinct species with more tribalistic behaviours over "fairer-skinned" humans is more than a little problematic), particularly with Cort, who feels very Ethan like. That's not too surprising, as Ethan has always been a little of an authorial self-insert, and also fits Buckley's drawing style well, but it was an opportunity missed to write a slightly different character.

But these are very minor quibbles, and overall I had a great time with the first volume of Starcaster and eagerly look forward to seeing how the story develops and discovering more about some of the many mysteries, both the personal ones (Cort's father and what actually happened between him and Federation; whether Nyrah's species are truly extinct) and the larger, intergalactic ones (what happened to the Aug?). It's been a great ride so far, long may that continue.

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