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. ★★★★★

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

Ballyhoo #2: WHEN KATIE MET CASSIDY by Camille Perri

Ballyhoo

Ballyhoo: “an excited commotion” or a 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 romantic comedy that’s already getting a lot of buzz as exactly the kind of sweet and funny lesbian romance queer readers deserve, but have had trouble finding. Let’s dive in!


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When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

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Coming June 19th, 2018

From the acclaimed author of The Assistants comes another gutsy book about the importance of women taking the reins—except this time, when it comes to finding sexuality, pleasure, and love sometimes where you least expect it.

Katie Daniels is a perfection-seeking 28-year-old lawyer living the New York dream. She’s engaged to charming art curator Paul Michael, has successfully made her way up the ladder at a multinational law firm and has a hold on apartments in Soho and the West Village. Suffice it to say, she has come a long way from her Kentucky upbringing.

But the rug is swept from under Katie when she is suddenly dumped by her fiance, Paul Michael, leaving her devastated and completely lost. On a whim, she agrees to have a drink with Cassidy Price-a self-assured, sexually promiscuous woman she meets at work. The two form a newfound friendship, which soon brings into question everything Katie thought she knew about sex—and love.

When Katie Met Cassidy is a romantic comedy that explores how, as a culture, while we may have come a long way in terms of gender equality, a woman’s capacity for an entitlement to sexual pleasure still remain entirely taboo. This novel tackles the question: Why, when it comes to female sexuality, are so few women figuring out what they want and then going out and doing it?

The marketing copy might be clunky (“how, as a culture, while we may have come a long way…” is pretty mealy-mouthed), but a glowing review of this book published in Autostraddle last week already has me sold.

As I mentioned last week when I talked about The Wedding Date, I love romance–but I’m also a lesbian, and romance pickings that center lesbians and bi women are notoriously slim. That’s why I’m excited for this book, which promises to be genuinely sweet and swoonworthy as well as funny and full of social commentary.

Oh, and I especially love romance pairings where one person is more innocent and the other is more experienced. As long as it doesn’t cross the line into manipulation and creepiness (uh, looking at you, Fifty Shades), that dynamic always gives me butterflies in my stomach. I’m excited to see the queer twist that When Katie Met Cassidy will bring to the trope.

Have you got your eyes set on When Katie Met Cassidytoo? 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!

Book Review: A QUICK & EASY GUIDE TO THEY/THEM PRONOUNS by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

This short-‘n’-sweet comic book guide to they/them pronouns has two simple goals in mind–to educate people about they/them pronouns, and to encourage the use of gender neutral language in general–and it accomplishes those things breezily and effectively. I’m nonbinary myself, and while none of the information here was new to me, it was presented with admirable precision and concision. I wholeheartedly recommend A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns as a toolbox and source of friendly validation for trans and nonbinary folks and their allies.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns will be released on June 12th, 2018. You can read my full review below.


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A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

  • publisher: Limerence Press (an imprint of Oni Press)
  • publication date: June 12, 2018
  • length: 64 pages
  • cover price: $7.99

I came out as nonbinary in 2015. I distinctly remember how that felt: how afraid I was, how exhausted I was, but also how hopeful I was that I could finally live out an important part of myself authentically. For months, I pushed at friends and family members to remember. Please don’t call me a woman. Please don’t use “she”; please use “they” instead.

Unfortunately, outside of my very innermost circle, none of it stuck–and between being a busy student and a person with multiple disabilities, I just didn’t have the energy to keep correcting people. My feelings haven’t changed–I’m still a nonbinary person, and I’m happiest when people refer to me using they/them pronouns–but it’s not something that gets acknowledged in my day-to-day life anymore.

That’s why A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is so refreshing: it’s a 64-page comic book that can be read in less than an hour, and its breezy, no-nonsense tone treats a future in which gender-neutral language prevails as a given instead of a distant dream. That’s a much-needed hopeful message for nonbinary people. It’s also a palatable one for the legions of friendly-but-ignorant people who struggle with gender-neutral language, even if they aren’t hostile to it: this book is a cheerleader that says, yes, you too can do it!

In fact, what I appreciated most about the book was that it simply doesn’t acknowledge the bigots. Far too many educational resources about trans and nonbinary people take a sweeping, self-important approach that simply tries to do too much at once. Changing the mind of someone who’s virulently transphobic is maybe impossible, and it’s certainly something that can’t be done in the space of a brief and affable comic book, so the authors choose not to try. The book is clearer and better for it.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns also walks an admirable line of providing information without presenting itself as an unimpeachable authority. It’s quick to offer general definitions and cheat-sheets while also explaining that there are as many ways to be nonbinary as there are nonbinary people. It offers suggestions, like encouraging businesses to train staff to use gender-neutral language (cutting down on erroneous “sirs” and “ma’ams”), without insisting that those suggestions are inherently solutions.

Also, smartly, the book encourages people to err on the side of gender-neutral language not just for the sake of nonbinary people (who are a small but growing slice of the population, after all), but also to create a more equal world where gender matters less in general. It’s an argument I wish more trans and nonbinary advocates would make.

I’m confident that I can attribute all these good qualities to the fact that the book is spearheaded by an actual nonbinary person who uses they/them pronouns: Minneapolis cartoonist Archie Bongiovanni. (You may recognize their work from the Autostraddle Saturday morning cartoon, Grease Bats.) It’s cowritten with their cisgender (non-transgender) male friend, Tristan Jimerson, meaning the book can speak for nonbinary people and allies alike.

Of course, it’s not all perfect: I’m not a huge comics person, and though the comics format makes the book feel breezier and easier to read, I would have preferred plain text. (That’s 100% just because I’m boring, but I figured I’d note it anyway.) The jokes are on the corny side and a few don’t quite land. Most of all, because nonbinary identity tends to be so unique and personal to each individual, there were a few points in the book that rubbed me the wrong way since they didn’t ring quite true for me–a problem that cis readers likely won’t have.

Overall, A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns fills a necessary niche with aplomb. It’s cheap to buy (just $7.99) and quick to read, and I recommend it highly, especially for educational and professional spaces looking to do trainings on this topic or just looking to keep resources on their shelves.

If you’re a nonbinary person looking for validation and a toolbox–or a cis person who’s looking to be a better, more supportive friend to the nonbinary community–this book is for you. 4/5 stars.

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is currently available for pre-order and will be released on June 12th, 2018.


I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.