About halfway through STARLESS (Amazon), Jacqueline Carey’s latest novel, the narrative takes a distinct turn towards myth and fable. The move from specific to generic forfeits much of what was interesting in the first half of the book in favor of an almost childlike story of wonder and adventure, leaving the reader holding a novel that feels less than satisfying despite many interesting elements.
STARLESS takes place, perhaps not surprisingly, in a world where all of the stars have fallen to earth. Each of these fallen ‘children of heaven’ now rule as a god or goddess in the realm where they fell. Born at the exact moment of an eclipse, Khai is chosen by the Brotherhood of Parkhun to be raised as the ‘shadow’ to Princess Zariya, who was also born under this same celestial event. Zariya is part of the House of the Ageless, the royal family who partake each year of a special seed that prevents aging, keeping them alive for hundreds of years.
Khai’s sheltered world changes the day that a criminal comes to challenge the brotherhood for his life, seeking to be washed free of his past misdeeds. He succeeds in the challenge and Brother Yarit, as the foul-mouthed, former master thief becomes known, begins to teach Khai about ‘honor beyond honor,’ giving him a set of skills of questionable legality but definitive usefulness.
Khai’s training, as well as several important revelations take up most of the first half of the book (revelations that will go unnamed in this review because they cross the line from informative to spoiler-y). At this point the narrative moves from the desert to the city, where Khai accepts his mantle as the Shadow of Princess Zariya. Not all is well in the capital city of Merabhat, however, and Khai and Zariya look as if they are about to be involved in a swirl of politics and intrigue. Instead, the narrative (which as been begging for us to notice how carefully it is setting up their destiny) sweeps them off on an epic adventure.
Fate, it appears, has chosen Khai and Zariya to be part of a group of adventures who must save the world from Miasmus, a child of heaven who was wrongly cast down and now seeks to destroy every living thing. This quest occupies the second half of the novel, which reads something like a travelogue as our Khai and Zariya visit exotic places to collect all of the missing pieces of the prophecy that will tell them how to defeat Miasmus. Along the way they encounter friends both old and new, until, gentle reader, they defeat the evil god through the power of–wait for it–friendship. And teamwork. And love.
Not that every novel needs to be a bloody, dark, tale of tortured souls, but even taking into consideration how much I love love, I found the ending to be… a little much.
With that summary, what works and what doesn’t for Carey?
The first half of STARLESS is compelling and Carey’s handle on the narrative is solid and careful. I enjoyed getting to know Khai and actually meeting the gods. I enjoyed meeting desert tribes and I especially enjoyed Brother Yarit and Khai’s journey as reluctant mentor and mentee. There are also, as mentioned earlier, some interesting revelations in the first half (ish), which allow Carey to explore gender, identity, and disability in ways that, if they lack satisfying depth, are interesting to contemplate and give Khai and Zariya needed layers of complexity and vulnerability.
One reason the second half of the novel weaker than the first was the loss of narrative voice. Because Carey has chosen a single POV for her narrative, Khai is the reader’s only window into every new island and obstacle that he and Zariya encounter. While I enjoyed Khai’s voice during the desert training montage section (and I’m not usually into training montages), here, his voice becomes lost in the adventure. The narrative feels increasingly detached from the individuality of Khai’s experience, making it more generic and less engaging.
The other reason that I found the second half of the narrative less compelling than the first was that the weight of prophecy takes over until the narrative feels like clockwork gears set in motion. Khai’s destiny becomes inescapable, his motivations becoming increasingly less real and less necessary. The sheer force of the prophecy effectively eliminates any belief in character-driven choice, making the stakes, and thus the reader’s interest–or at least mine–ebb accordingly.
I came to STARLESS as a fresh reader, with no preconceived notions of Carey as a writer. I left with a sense that she’s a solid writer who let the sharpest, most interesting parts of her story get overwhelmed in favor of a grand narrative. It’s not a bad book, but it’s one that had potential to be more than it is.
- Recommended Age: 11+
- Language: Some swearing, but not pervasive
- Violence: Lots of fighting, but not graphic at all
- Sex: One small, abstract scene