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.


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Starless by Jacqueline Carey

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  • 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.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

Ballyhoo #1: STARLESS by Jacqueline Carey

Ballyhoo

Ballyhoo: “an excited commotion” or a brand-new blog feature? Both, obviously!

Ballyhoo is an on-again, off-again feature where I chat about an upcoming release I’m particularly excited about. Today I’m featuring a thrilling epic fantasy from one of my very favorite authors. Let’s dive in!


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Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Coming June 12th, 2018

Jacqueline Carey is back with an amazing adventure not seen since her New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series. Lush and sensual, Starless introduces us to an epic world where exiled gods live among us, and a hero whose journey will resonate long after the last page is turned.

Let your mind be like the eye of the hawk…Destined from birth to serve as protector of the princess Zariya, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a warrior sect in the deep desert; yet there is one profound truth that has been withheld from him.

In the court of the Sun-Blessed, Khai must learn to navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity…but in the far reaches of the western seas, the dark god Miasmus is rising, intent on nothing less than wholesale destruction.

If Khai is to keep his soul’s twin Zariya alive, their only hope lies with an unlikely crew of prophecy-seekers on a journey that will take them farther beneath the starless skies than anyone can imagine.

Words cannot express my undying love for Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series–the recent news that she’s planning to write a version of the first novel, Kushiel’s Dart, from love interest Joscelin’s perspective set my heart pitter-pattering–and Starless seems like it’s going to touch on everything I love about the Kushiel universe: vengeful gods, tortured-but-lovable heroes, epic journeys, and passion in all forms.

I just heard about this book this week and it’s already shot to the top of my TBR list. I think I’m even going to pre-order it to ensure that I get my mitts on it ASAP! (Money’s tight at the moment, so pre-orders are a real treat.)

Have you got your eyes set on Starless, too? What’s your ballyhoo this week? Let me know all about it in the comments–I’m always looking to add to my TBR list!

What books do you turn to when you’re sad?

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me. My chronic pain has been especially severe and, well, chronic lately, and world news has felt especially bad. It got me thinking: what books help you cope when things are difficult?

I think there are two components that make a book a good companion when you’re sad: catharsis and comfort. Cathartic books help me to process what I’m feeling, while comforting books help me to forget for awhile. I’ve found I need both kinds, although I tend toward catharsis. (My family jokes–kindly–about my love of traumatic and tear-jerking media.)

I’ve listed a few of my favorite sadness-companion books below, and I’d love to hear about your own favorites in the comments.


9780307476074Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

This is the newest addition to my list of go-to’s, but it’s a good one. Strayed’s blockbuster memoir documents the aftermath of her mother’s death–a painful divorce, casual heroin use, and a terrible dead-end feeling–and how, with nothing more to lose, she decided to spend a summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, despite being broke and brutally unprepared.

The result is a memoir that pushes the very limits of the form and is also tremendously inspiring–without, exactly, feeling inspirational. I devoured this book and highly, highly recommend it for anyone who has lost something–which is to say, everyone.

153008Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

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Also fairly new to its permanent home on my nightstand is this spectacular high fantasy novel, about an alternate version of medieval Europe where gods still make their presence known. Kushiel’s Dart manages to be both hardcore escapism and also a remarkable commentary on our own world. In the nation of Terre d’Ange, where most of the story takes place, love is a central religious precept, making sex a spiritual act, and rape a crime of heresy as well as violence. It’s deeply erotic but also deeply emotional, and the action and world-building are to die for.

The whole series is incredible (I’m currently halfway through the first book in a second, linked trilogy), and I can’t recommend it more highly to fantasy lovers who are sick of the endless iterations of Tolkien-lite.

9780385720953The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

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It’s hard to imagine myself loving any book as much as I love The Blind Assassin. It’s a sprawling, messy family epic set in early-20th century Canada, told in conjunction with a novel-within-a-novel that’s part sci-fi, part modernist tragedy. The Blind Assassin‘s protagonist, Iris, is vain, proud, and a bit foolish, and at first it seems like the novel will never get where it’s going, but when it does, the effect is something akin to a refreshing plunge into deep, cold water.

I re-read this book at least once every couple of years, and every time I do, I find something new to love. While I wouldn’t characterize it as a comforting story, it is comforting for me personally, because I’m reminded of the person I was all the times I read it before.

77262Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

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I distinctly remember “stealing” this book from my mother’s shelf when I was 11 or 12 years old; it was probably the first adult literary novel I ever read, so its emotional power felt especially fresh to me. It’s about a woman who returns to her tiny Southwestern hometown to help support her aging father. It touches on all sorts of topics, from Kingsolver’s characteristic environmentalism to her equally characteristic explorations of motherhood.

Over ten years after I first read it, its cathartic highs and lows (and a lovely, hopeful ending) still make it one of the first books I reach for when I need to revisit a familiar and comforting world.


Do you tend towards catharsis or comfort reads when times are tough? Do you have any stories of times books helped you through a difficult situation? If you’re game to share, I’d love to read your thoughts below.