Book Review: Of Fire and Stars

Of Fire and Stars is Audrey Coulthurst’s debut novel put out by Balzer + Bay. It’s a lovely little YA fantasy LGBTQ+ novel that revolves around two princesses: Dennaleia from Havemont who has been betrothed to Prince Thandilimon of Mynaria to assure an alliance between the two countries, and Amaranthine who is Thandilimon’s sister.

The main focus of the book bounces back and forth a little between the politics of the world and the romance that springs up between the two princesses.

Havemont and Mynaria are coming to an alliance, the southern and newly consolidated country of Sonneborne is attempting to find its place and the mysterious Zumorda is keeping everyone else guessing with its silence. In this world magic exists and can be manipulated by those born with the talent for it, but a good portion of the population views magic as an abomination in the eyes of their religion. This attitude seems especially strong in Mynaria, whereas Zumorda appears to be where many of those with Affinities, (a talent for magic), come from. As the story progresses we find an uprising of magic users and those who support them – called Recusants – and members of the Royal family start dropping dead, with all clues pointing directly at the Recusants.

This portion of the plot quickly resolves into a political ‘whodunit’ with most of the signs pointing to the Recusants or Zumorda, both of whom would wish to halt the coming alliance to keep the path to a sanctuary in Havemont open to those with Affinities. The reader, however, is given a few other possibilities for who, specifically, is the one with the metaphorical bloody dagger and what their exact motives could be. One or two are obviously red herrings, but it’s just enough to keep you guessing throughout the book.

While all this is going on, we also have princesses Dennaleia and Amaranthine, or Denna and Mare for short. Denna has known since she was small that she would be marrying the Prince, and so had spent her life studying all she could to be an effective ruler. She’s very dedicated to her duty, and determined to do and be all that she can for the sake of her people, whoever her people end up being. In contrast, Mare had grown up doing more or less whatever she has wanted, shirking her duties to train horses, sneak into the seedier parts of town and hang out with the liegemen of the castle. Mare cares for her family and people, but has no patience for the protocol of court, and as a result of her rebelliousness, her voice is disregarded even when she has good points to make.

Mynaria has a horse heavy culture, much like Rohan of Middle Earth, and Denna has no idea how to ride. As the best rider around, Mare is given the job of teaching her, an arrangement which neither of them enjoys for different reasons. As they spend time together and the situation around them becomes more fraught, they grow closer and closer until they realize that they are, in fact, in love.

I really enjoyed this book, and finished it in two days. I might have finished it in only one, except I had a job to do both of those days. As it was, I was often sneaking in a page or two of reading when I could while on the clock. It’s an easy read, and gets you right into the world it creates with only a few minor hiccups. Our two mains, Denna and Mare, have distinct personalities. Each of them has their own sets of worries and troubles and opinions, and each has their own distinct voice. This is made more noticeable as the novel is set in an alternating first person POV between the two girls, giving us a view of unfolding events from different but related perspectives.

The politics and depth of the world felt a little deeper than what is typically found in a YA novel, which was nice, in my opinion. I enjoy depth in my reads, whether it be in world or character. However, this did lead to a couple nagging issues. Being constrained by format, the world could never become too complex without going into sequels – which I do not think is the case, here – but it did try. As a result we sometimes got some good setup for conspiracies and maneuvering which was either spun off into a dead end, let go to do what it would without us seeing it, or was ‘resolved’ in what felt like overly simplistic cop outs. It’s not something I’m going to knock it too hard for, though. For the size of the book, 389 pages, there is a lot crammed in there, and having to let some of it just barely show is understandable.

At the beginning of the book the focus is more on the politics, then we shift to the romance, and then both take an equal footing. It’s a good balance, and gives us a nice slow build for the relationship between Denna and Mare. The relationship and its development felt realistic, with no ‘love at first sight’ tropes, or even a ‘pointed interest at first sight.’ Denna wants to be Mare’s friend because that will strengthen her own position and Mare wants as little to do with Denna as possible. The way and rate this changes feels natural and unrushed, and by the time we get to the end it’s totally believable that these two are in love and not just infatuated.

The third act is both larger-than-life and a little disappointing, at least to me. Throughout the book the mystery of who is really behind the Royal assassinations is handled poorly by those who are meant to be investigating them, almost comically so. Towards the end of the book this is particularly noticeable as some characters dismiss clues or witness testimony for no adequate reason. It’s almost cartoonish in a way, an oversimplification of character to ensure we keep our needed friction and obstruction for the plot. Similarly, once the true villain is revealed their actions are cartoonish in their mustache twirling. Their motives are understandable and more than just ‘because I want to’ or ‘because I’m evil,’ but again, their behavior is a little melodramatic.

But the melodrama, while letting down the political side of the plot, boosts up the tension on the romance side, which I’m sure was the point. We get a very theatrical rescue scene, characters who acted like asses before see the errors of their ways, redemption and forgiveness abound, and our princesses get a happy, if mildly bittersweet ending.

Like I said, I did enjoy this. The writing is clean and uncluttered, the pacing is good, the world building has some nice depth, and the characterization of our two leads at least is very nice. With how much went into the set up of the politics, though, it did feel a little bit like a let down by the end, and I would have enjoyed a less predictable solution. At one point, due to accidentally reading a few words near the end prematurely, I suspected Denna’s mother of being the true culprit behind everything, which blew my mind a little. What an unexpected twist! But one I could actually see happening and which would change everything we’d previously thought. Obviously that didn’t happen, but it was an interesting possibility.

Overall an enjoyable book, and one I’m happy to have on my shelf in hardback. I’m going to be recommending it to my sister who is working on her own LGBTQ+ story of magic and politics.

As of the writing of this, Coulthurst has two books slated for future release. Starworld co-written with Paula Garner set to come out in Fall 2018, and Inkmistress in Winter of 2018. I’ll most likely be picking them both up with the time comes.

If you’d like a good LGBTQ+ fantasy, give Of Fire and Stars a read!

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