Book Review: STARLESS by Jacqueline Carey

Starless is a wildly ambitious fantasy adventure about a world where stars were banished from the sky after conspiring against their sun-and-moons parents, sent to the earth as gods who play games with the lives of the mortals who worship them. A prophecy foretells a devastating apocalypse, but in the Sun-Blessed desert land of Zarkhoum, such doom seems far away: warrior wunderkind Khai is too busy learning to fight to defend the Sun to his Shadow, Princess Zariya, whom he’s never met. Of course the two ultimately end up on a high-stakes quest–this is a Jacqueline Carey novel, after all.

I adored this book for a million reasons, and it’s easily one of my favorites of the year. You can read my full review below.

This review contains spoilers. They are marked so you can skip over them if you want to go in completely cold.


34357122

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble IndieBound

  • publisher: Tor Books
  • publication date: June 12, 2018
  • length: 592 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I was nine years old the first time I tried to kill a man, and although in the end I was glad my attempt failed, I had been looking forward to the opportunity for quite some months.

Starless, page 1

Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before: a fated warrior hooks up with a motley crew to fulfill a prophecy and annihilate an ultimate evil. Just like that’s the plot of a thousand fantasy books before it, it’s basically the plot of Starless. But upon this sturdy scaffolding, Jacqueline Carey builds a fantasy that’s stunningly affecting and unique.

Starless follows Khai, a young and gifted warrior raised in the desert as a fated companion to Princess Zariya. Both born during a lunar eclipse, they are Shadow and Sun, respectively, with an emotional and physical bond no one can break. Starless is a long novel with so many different settings and twists that you’ll feel a different person at the end of it than you were at the beginning.

That’s a good thing, and it’s exactly why I (and I suspect many others) love epic fantasy novels when we might not tolerate such long books in other genres. There’s something so cathartic and pure about that journey from humble to hero, and with characters as lovely, heroic, and complex as Khai and Zariya, it’s an even more satisfying journey than usual.

If you’re already familiar with Carey, it’s probably because of her Kushiel novels. Kushiel’s Dart, the first installment, introduced the world to the unforgettable courtesan-spy Phèdre nó Delauney. I’m a die-hard fan of that series, and I picked up Starless looking for another fix of Carey’s sensual, intricate, unpredictable approach to plotting and world-building.

Kushiel’s Dart is known for being incredibly opulent and erotic, but I think its enduring draw lies in its goodness, almost a purity: despite its kinky, dark elements, it’s full of characters who love and seek to do good with their whole hearts. It’s a series I’ve been turning to a lot in a world that feels increasingly devoid of heroes.

To my surprise (at first worried, then pleasant), Carey takes Starless in a very different direction to Kushiel. Where those books dripped with sex and wealth and desire, Starless’s world is quieter, more stark, and more alien. The gods of Kushiel mostly watch over their own; the gods of Starless are capricious and even cowardly. The map of Kushiel is recognizable; Starless takes place in a holy (and literally starless) archipelago unlike any you’d find in our world.

Carey is clearly fascinated by the relationships between mortals and immortals, and that fascination comes across as just plain weird in Starless where it was more conventional in Kushiel. I think it’s a good kind of weird. Carey is a beloved author at the top of her game who can take big risks. They pay off.

Starless’s world is so intricate that it’s genuinely shocking to me that Carey just…came up with it, as opposed to unearthing it on a sacred tablet somewhere. Her clear inspirations range from the Middle East (complete with “veiled” women, though they veil to honor a fiery goddess and not because of Islam), to northern Europe, to the jungles of Australia and South America. But most of the cultures and histories of Starless have no clear inspiration at all. These details make unforgettable cameos and then disappear, almost as if Carey is showing off the depths of her imagination. I loved it.

Starless is also full of characters who in our world wouldn’t be considered white–there are lots of descriptions of different skin tones and hair textures, and the protagonists are described as “dark-skinned” with dark eyes–which is refreshing.

The descriptor I keep coming back to for Starless is rich: this book is a delicious, perfectly spiced, and filling meal. You don’t know how the chef made it but you can’t stop eating.

Most of all, I loved the attention Carey pays to sex and gender, which is unsurprising after Kushiel’s Dart (a true innovator in fantasy in this area) but still a novelty. What I’d like to talk about is something of a twist, so I’ve placed it behind a spoilers tag:

Highlight to read spoilers:

We find out about 1/5th of the way through the book that Khai was female at birth, but because of his status as a fated Shadow, was raised as a man while training in the desert. This is hidden from him until puberty, when his body starts to change. He ultimately develops a nonbinary identity that’s really nuanced and interesting and that felt completely true to the character.

I’m nonbinary myself and I want to buy this book for every other nonbinary or trans person I know. It’s something that’s integral to the plot and world without feeling like an after-school special “issue,” and the representation meant the world to me.

End spoilers.

There was one thing I didn’t like about Starless: Carey feeds into an unfortunate fantasy trope that grates on me, the one where fatness is equated with greed and weakness. Literally the only characters described as “fat” are portrayed as pathetic tricksters, monsters, and even child rapists. (She throws out weak allusions to other characters with “curves” who aren’t portrayed negatively, but the word “fat” definitely equals “bad” in this novel.) Fatness is not a sign of immorality! As a fat person, I was really disturbed that Carey leans on this when she’s so good at evading stereotype everywhere else. It’s infrequent enough that it didn’t ruin my enjoyment, but I wanted to mention it, since it’s a terrible flaw in an otherwise wonderful book.

Carey’s imagination is full of riches, and her skills as a writer have only strengthened in the many years since Kushiel’s Dart. This novel is an electric testament to what happens when you let fantasy be fantasy: the farther it gets from our own world (and the world of Tolkien-lite), the truer and more riveting it gets. It tugs on heartstrings and cuts right to the bone.

Starless is damn near flawless. ★★★★★

Related books you might also enjoy:


My copy of Starless came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD voted the #1 “Great American Read”: What do you think?

To Kill a Mockingbird Cover.JPGPBS recently undertook a weeks-long process involving polls and interviews to try and discover the top 100 most-loved books in America, a project they called “The Great American Read.” Now the results are in, with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee occupying the top spot.

I find this project so fascinating because it’s not out to find the “best” book, per se–and I’m not convinced there is such a thing, anyway–but rather to find which books have been most well-loved and influential in Americans’ lives.

The list was dominated by books that are common on high school and middle school reading lists, including Jane Eyre (#10), 1984 (#18), Call of the Wild (#37), and War and Peace (#50).

There were plenty of newer and YA-oriented finalists too, including the Harry Potter series (#3), The Book Thief (#14), The Da Vinci Code (#33), The Hunger Games (#40), and the Twilight saga (#73).

twilight coverFinally, I was delighted to see the volume of sci-fi and fantasy novels on the list. I wasn’t surprised to see 1984 or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (#5), but I was surprised that the Outlander series (#2!!! wow), Game of Thrones (#48), and Ready Player One (#76) were all so well-loved. Further proof that despite these genres’ reputation as niche, fringe, geeky, and weird, they are in fact extremely popular and influential.

It was especially interesting to digest these results after writing yesterday’s rant about “canon” and why I think it’s silly to think of certain books as universal. I was struck by how few books I’ve read on this list, not just the ones by men (which was my main point yesterday) but also the ones by women: I think I’ve read maybe 25% of this list, and that’s being generous. I’ve never even read To Kill a Mockingbird. 

I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Again, I’d much prefer to read to my own interests (life is short) and there are a great deal of books on that list that don’t look appealing to me. But it was interesting.

I would also love to see a Venn diagram of sorts about who voted for what. Could we cross-reference how many people voted for Atlas Shrugged (#20) and also, say, Their Eyes Were Watching God (#51) or The Notebook (#56)? I’m always interested in the range of people’s tastes and this seems like a treasure trove of data in that regard.

A big thank you to pop culture writer and podcaster Linda Holmes, whose tweets this morning brought this list to my attention.

So, what do you think about these results? Did some surprise you or even shock you? Did some make you roll your eyes? (As much as I try to reserve judgment about others’ tastes, there were definitely a few of those for me.) Did others delight you?

I want to hear about it, so please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Why I read women (or, why “universal” literature is bunk)

book book pages books browse
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you’ve spent any time on my blog–if so, thank you! –I think you’ll soon realize how few books by men I seek out, read, and write about. Scanning back a few months, the last two books by men that I’ve mentioned were Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (in September) and November Road by Lou Berney, in a Friday Bookbag all the way back at the beginning of August.

It’s not that there aren’t books by men that I enjoy. To discount the artistic ability of nearly half the population would be absurd, right? (Ha.) It’s that, for me, reading is personal. I have always read what I want to read, and I want to read about women.

Luckily, at least in this regard, I grew up homeschooled. (The only formal schooling I got before college was one hellish year in kindergarten.) While the experience was a mixed bag, one thing I remain grateful for was that my mother did not insist I read classics, leaving me instead to read…well, everything else.

Before starting this blog, I ran a YA book blog titled “Bibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf” (clearly, I’m not particularly creative with blog names) from 2009-2013 or so. I took it down some time ago–it was full of embarrassing coming-of-age content that I no longer wanted to broadcast to the web–but the experience was profound. It was my first exposure to ARCs, reviews, the ins and outs of publishing, and most importantly, the incredible diversity of books that are out there if you’re willing to find them.

Once, both for that blog and for my own enjoyment, I read 365 books in a year. It’s a great fun fact.

And yet I’ve never read Moby Dick. I’ve never read Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Lolita or Steinbeck or Twain or Dostoyevsky or any of the dozens more defining books of the English-language canon.

It’s not something I’m proud of, per se, because canons exist to create common ground, and no reader is an island. I may not have read Moby Dick but I have read countless other books by authors who care a lot about Moby Dick. To be so unfamiliar with their source material is a loss, not a gain.

But I still don’t know if I’ll ever read Moby Dick, because I value fun–or at the very least, human connection–in what I read, and Moby Dick strikes me as neither fun nor about the kind of humans I care for, although perhaps I would be interested in the whale. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

There is also, quite simply, so much else to read.

I once began a college essay with “I have never been fond of feminism as a way of being.” It was an essay for an English literature class; an essay on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, no less. It’s an essay I look back on with a fair amount of embarrassment, but also, strangely, delight.

Because earlier that same year, I devoured Mockingjay, hunting an elusive release day copy at every bookstore in town. I would soon be introduced to Tris of Divergent. I already loved the kooky, Southern Belle-esque feminine wiles of Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, about a schizophrenic biracial girl who returns to a Lovecraftian Texas town to fight monsters. I was enthralled by Gemma Doyle, Libba Bray’s Victorian witchy badass who has a vulnerable side, too. I was addicted to Philippa Gregory’s “historical,” smutty novels about the women of Tudor England. Which is to say nothing of Katsa or Lauren Olamina or Offred, or–heaven help me–Bella Swan, or Merricat and Constance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle itself, or the dozens of other intense, prickly, complex heroines who have profoundly shaped my life.

I am delighted by my crappy college essay because it has the broken-clock quality of understanding that feminism, to me, is not a way of being, at least not in any cohesive sense. It is merely–and perhaps that is the wrong word–merely the acknowledgment that the lives of women and nonbinary people are not second-rate. (Revolutionarily.)

Their stories aren’t second-rate, either, something I must have understood already, based on my tastes. Based, as well, on my analysis of Jackson’s creepy, idiosyncratic, lovely novel about two sisters, an uncle, and a sugar bowl. I still think that analysis is quite good; I found that novel to be deadly serious, and still do, just as I find the lives of young girls everywhere to be deadly serious.

If I were to assemble a personal canon, here are the novels I would place most prominently within it:

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • and, yes, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

It is not the canon. It is a canon, and I am always re-shaping it. It is a key to my heart and also, somehow, my heart itself. I encourage you to develop your own.

My life is not second-rate. My experiences are not second-rate. And neither of the stories of other oft-forgottens, especially the stories of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color. I am always reading–devouring–stories that affirm that truth, however frivolous they seem. (In fact, the more frivolous, the better.) This is an act of self-love and an act of love for the universe.

It is not that I find the male literary canon to be irrelevant. It is that it is a treasure that already has a home and a prominent shelf to itself.

And I am looking to find treasures of my own.

Friday Bookbag, 10.19.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

Since it’s been so long since a Friday Bookbag (er…that was in early August, to be exact), this will be a loosey-goosey, mega-stuffed, big ol’ omnibus post full of the books that have come and gone from my possession over the past couple months. No time to waste. Let’s dive in!


Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Sabrina and Corina Coverthe premise: Sabrina and Corina is Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection of short stories, centered on Indigenous Latina women living in the American West. Her characters include mothers and daughters, sex workers and prisoners, ancestors and descendants.

why I’m excited: Sabrina and Corina doesn’t release until April 2019, but I was lucky enough to be approved for a review copy on Netgalley. I’m so excited for this one that it makes my fingertips tingle. I love the innovation and beauty happening in the short story collection space right now: it seems that more collections are being published by major presses than there have been in a long time. I’m thrilled that this one (with that gorgeous cover!) gets to see the light of day in mainstream publishing. Fajardo-Anstine is working with familiar short story themes of family, legacy, and death, but she populates them with settings and characters that feel fresh and timely in this climate. I just can’t wait for April, when you’ll all get to dive into this one with me. (It’s currently available for pre-order.)

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble IndieBound

34357122the premise: Khai has been training from birth to protect the Princess Zariya, in a world where gods walk among humans and magic reigns. When a secret and a dark god threaten to upend his world, Khai must journey to the ends of the earth, deep beneath starless skies, to save himself and Zariya both.

why I’m excited: I did a Ballyhoo about this one way back in May and I’m excited to say that I finally got to the top of the library waiting list for it. Jacqueline Carey is one of the most thrilling authors working in fantasy today: she transforms familiar fantasy tropes (fantasy, fated mates, broody warriors, fierce yet vulnerable princesses) into powerhouses of storytelling that rip my heart out of my chest and stomp on it. I’m a die-hard fan of her Kushiel novels and I can’t wait to lose myself in this new world of hers.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Just Kids Coverthe premise: Just Kids is rock legend Patti Smith’s memoir of her storied relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, beginning with her sickly, dreamy childhood in New Jersey and continuing with her bohemian years in New York City as an artist and poet crossing paths with legends from Janis Joplin to Bob Dylan to Lou Reed.

why I’m excited: This one feels like cheating to include, since I’ve read it so many times before, including for the most recent time last week (when I bought an e-book copy, which is why I’ve included it). It’s a memoir that has profoundly shaped my life: it’s hard not to feel inspired and awed by Smith’s work as an artist. Just Kids could so easily have been a self-hagiography–and frankly, Patti Smith has earned such an indulgence–but it’s not. It’s a slim, modest book that’s at its heart a love story, sometimes romantic and sometimes powerfully platonic, between her and Mapplethorpe. What a gift to get a peek into a New York arts scene that’s long since vanished, and what a gift that Smith is a talented enough writer to make that peek a work of literature instead of a mere voyeuristic exercise.

Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Incendiary Girls Coverthe premise: Like Sabrina and Corina, Incendiary Girls is a short story collection that feels uniquely able to exist because of the short story renaissance. Incendiary Girls is a madcap, magical, humorous romp through modern life, with characters ranging from a woman whose mother has been reincarnated as a Thoroughbred mare to an unorthodox angel.

why I’m excited: I’m wary of short story collections that seem self-consciously irreverent, and this one’s wacky advertised premises definitely come across that way. But there’s something about it that captured me. Maybe it’s that cover, which is gloriously understated even as the stories seem like they’re anything but. Maybe it’s that it seems that Scheer’s characters are mostly women, a quality I always seek out in my fiction. Either way, I took a chance on it, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether or not it pays off.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

American Street Coverthe premise: American Street is a YA novel about a Haitian teenager, Fabiola Touissant, who finds herself uprooted with her family to harsh Detroit. She struggles to find her footing, but just as it seems she might finally do so, she faces a choice that could shatter everything.

why I’m excited: This book is an instant YA classic. It’s universally beloved by the book-tweeters I follow (shameless self-plug that I am also a book-tweeter) and I’m so excited to finally get the chance to read it. American Street seems to have everything I want in a contemporary YA story: a protagonist making the best of a bad situation, an identity crisis, a sharp look at the problems real teens face all over the world. (And a gorgeous cover, too.) Love, love, love.

We Were Mothers by Katie Sise

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

We Were Mothers coverthe premise: In a picturesque, repressed, tight-knit suburban town, two families become entangled in a web of secrets around one daughter’s illicit encounter and another’s disappearance.

why I’m excited: Consider this yet another fix for my twisty-turny, Gone Girl-esque thriller habit. I’ll be honest: this one sounds like Big Little Lies-lite to me (and also like a less thoughtful version of Little Fires Everywhere), and I’m pretty sure I won’t love it…but like I said, it’s a fix. I love this kind of book, so I’ll reserve official judgment on its seemingly derivative elements till I read it.

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

On the Edge of Gone Coverthe premise: A comet is scheduled to hit the earth in 2035. Denise, her sister, and her mother Iris are on their way to a temporary shelter in Amsterdam, but then Iris disappears and Denise’s drug-addicted mother seems in no hurry to reach the shelter. Luckily, Denise receives another opportunity to survive: to leave earth on a ship that will colonize other worlds after the comet hits. There’s just one catch: everyone on board must have a useful skill, but Denise is autistic, which she fears will disqualify her from a new life among the stars.

why I’m excited: Literally everything about this premise excites me. An imminent societal collapse that isn’t a grim-dark moral on how crappy humanity is, a setting in Amsterdam (more YA set in other countries that isn’t an “issue novel” about those countries, please), and an autistic protagonist who seems to have a great deal of agency. It’s interesting sci-fi with something to say about the world that feels fresh. Love. Can’t wait to start turning the pages of this one.

The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Girl with the Red Balloon Coverthe premise: Try reading that title and looking at that cover without humming “99 Luftballons” to yourself–you can’t. And just like the song, The Girl with the Red Balloon’s story hails from a divided Berlin. 16-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally warps to East Berlin in 1988, a city about to (almost literally) shatter. She falls in with the Balloonmakers, a secretive guild who use magic and balloons to help people escape over the wall. But it soon becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to manipulate history, putting Ellie at the center of a battle for the future.

why I’m excited: I can’t believe how untapped the Berlin Wall is as a setting for fiction, especially YA. It’s hard to imagine a more potent real-life event to set a story in. It feels more relevant today than ever, and it also serves as a potent metaphor for the battles over identity and selfhood that teenagers face every day. The Girl with the Red Balloon strikes me as genuinely innovative and interesting, a YA like no other I can think of. How wonderful.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

I’m back!

…and newly married, honeymooned, and more relaxed than I’ve felt in what seems like years. So relaxed, in fact, that I can’t quite seem to focus on books just yet. But since I can never stay away from reading (or opinion-giving) for long, I’m sure you’ll see me back here soon. I’ve got a number of library holds and NetGalley requests pending that have me extremely excited, after all. I might do a post this week just about those. Hmmm…

In the meantime, here’s a photo of me and my wife taken just before our ceremony that’s giving me warm fuzzies every time I look at it:

Photo of the Brides

image description: a photo of two very happy-looking people in white poufy dresses. My now-wife Serena is on the left. She is wearing a veil, pearl earrings, and a pearl necklace. I am on the right wearing a tiara. We are embracing in front of a brick background.

Thanks for sticking around, dear readers, and I’ll see you soon!