The Oceans and the Stars: A Sea Story, A War Story, A Love Story (A Novel)

Image of The Oceans and the Stars: A Sea Story, A War Story, A Love Story (A Novel)
Release Date: 
October 3, 2023
The Overlook Press
Reviewed by: 

With a title implying vastness, and a subtitle specifying three subjects broad enough for each to fill its own book, readers can expect an epic novel with them all melded together. And at 500 pages in full-size format, densely packed, an epic is exactly what they get.

Happily, it’s a grand epic. The “war story” dominates, as the main character—career U.S. naval officer Stephen Rensselaer—is set up to fail through a military engagement with Middle Eastern enemies. This war appears to be author-invented, but it is extrapolated so closely from recent history, and there are so many secret operations at play, that it’s hard to be sure.

Regardless, Stephen defies the odds to not only survive but achieve amazing victories, despite being demoted to captain of a doomed prototype ship when he should have been promoted to admiral of the fleet.

The “sea story” is where most of the action occurs. (A foray onto enemy land, however, leads to Stephen being court-martialed.) The oceans and stars form the backdrop of a sailor’s life and take readers into a world few will ever know, showing how these elements define and affect the people cut off from land for long periods while serving as political pawns in the face of death.

The “love story” ties it all together. Stephen and Katy Farrar, a tax attorney, meet late in life and find in each other the perfect partner—right when Stephen is called to duty for his fateful voyage. How they handle togetherness, apartness, and interference by hostile forces gives us a mature romance not often seen in fiction or real life. Their love is what helps Stephen endure his ordeals and follow his heart home.

Ah, the heart. Therein lies the crux of the story.

Although Stephen is a practical and brilliant man, he is impelled by idealism, morality, and responsibility toward his fellow humans. He feels doing right is more important than following orders, climbing a career ladder, even staying out of prison. The no-win dilemmas he faces require the excruciating choice of whether to save the many for the long term, or save the few who have the direst need right now. Or just to save himself.

The power of life and death lies at his fingertips, without support from the institutions he’s spent his life serving. Some of those institutions betray him cruelly. This is a man who spends most of the book squashed between a ruthlessly plausible rock and hard place. What makes the story work is how thoroughly the reader shares the details and agonies of his choices.

Simultaneous with its focus on Stephen’s psychological gut-wrenching, the book is dizzyingly technical. Readers interested in how ships, systems, politics, and weapons work will relish the details. Those who don’t will get options to skip built into the narrative. In one case, the author drops in from omniscience to state the following section might be too much information and suggests where to resume. In other areas, it’s evident where a technical info dump is coming so readers can pop past it without losing story.

But it’s worth following as much as one can because those details are what enable Stephen to prevail like David against Goliath. Or, to stick with the naval theme, to triumph on the seas like Horatio Hornblower. Stephen’s is a familiar story of a heroic leader against a monolithic force. We see it in epics across genres involving might vs. right, man vs. elements, light vs. dark, honor vs. expediency, individual vs. institution or culture.

The novel contains a second subtitle on the inside title page: “The Seven Battles and Mutiny of Athena, Patrol Coastal Ship 15.” Everything revolves around that.

The writing style and deep explorations of character and theme are typical of literary novels. But this book differs from many literary works, both classic and contemporary, in what aspects of character and theme are explored. Instead of characters who either start broken, get broken, recover from being broken, or are surrounded by broken others, in dramas about how life wounds people’s heart or spirit, in Oceans and Stars none of the characters is or gets broken, despite being trapped in impossible, extremely dark, ugly, violent circumstances and manipulated by dirty dealings.

Rather, their inner strength, honesty, and integrity allow them to not only endure but rise above. And although there’s much idealism holding things together, it’s never implausible. One of the reasons the book is 500 pages long is because every situation is thoroughly set up, providing technical how and emotional why, intellectual why, political why. No blind corners here, no unreliable narrators.

In broken-people stories, characters pass through a crucible and are either healed or destroyed, but always changed. In intact-people stories, they pass through the crucible with their core still intact. They are unchanged, aside from being stronger and wiser, and usually have helped or saved other people, even civilization, in the process. The point is their very unchanged-ness, which proves that their best human qualities can prevail against all odds.

What this type of story shares with all literary fiction is the emphasis on character motivation. In Oceans and Stars, it sometimes feels like we’re getting too much information. Yet it leaves readers absolutely clear on who the characters are and why they're doing what they're doing. Motive is the driving force of this novel, so being able to understand matters most.

Blending genres at epic scale is usually a tough sell in the marketplace. Where does “a sea story, a war story, a love story” belong on bookstore shelves? Placing this one in the “Inspirational” section might be the right idea.