Jacqueline Carey is an author that delights in taking the known and giving it a twist to make something new. She burst on to the fantasy scene with the epic Kushiel’s Dart series where she took the trope of a damsel in distress and turned it on it’s head. Touched by Kushiel, the god of justice and punishment, to experience pleasure in pain Phedre uses her skills as a courtesan and spy to save her realm. Her next work The Sundering duology asked the question what makes one side “good” and the other “evil” by telling an epic fantasy from the “evil” point of view and thus turning it into a tragedy. Santa Olivia and it’s follow up Saints Astray take a new look at superheros in a post punk apocalyptic setting. Her Agent of Hel series is an urban fantasy where the heroine is half human and half demon who struggles with staying good. Her most recent book Miranda and Caliban (which I reviewed for CBR9) tells her vision of what occurred before the events in Shakespeare’s Tempest.
This time she is back to her epic fantasy roots but in a standalone book, Starless. In the beginning there was the sun god, Zar and his three wives; Nim the bright moon, Shalal the dark moon, and Eshen the wandering moon. From them came thousands of children, the stars. The children not content with staying still in the sky, while the sun and moons traveled, rose up in an attempt to overthrow their parents. Chaos reigned until Zar cast his children down to earth where they are bound, and now the skies are empty of all stars, hence Starless. The world is a gigantic archipelago each with a resident, and physically present, god. One child of Eshen, Miasmus, was hidden by his mother and grew up in darkness but was cast down with all the rest. Prophecy says that one day Miasmus will rise up to swallow the world.
Starless contains many of the standard features of fantasy, a Seer, a prophecy, an Oracle, and heroes foretold. But few of these elements are presented in forms we are used to seeing in these type of stories. Perhaps of particular interest to Cannonballers/Pajibans, there is a sentient octopus. As a result this is a difficult book to review because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises it brings by deviating away from standard tropes. Even Carey had a hard time talking about the book at an event I attended earlier this month.
One big thing that sets Starless apart, from every other fantasy I’ve read so far, is that a main character has a dilemma about gender, and the resulting questions that are raised about identity as a result. To avoid names and pronouns I will refer to the character as ze. Raised one gender ze learns before puberty sets in that ze is not what ze believed. This causes an identity crisis for the character that is explored throughout the book. As the character moves through the different worlds of men and women ze examines what makes ze comfortable. It is partly through the love of another, who accept ze as ze is, that ze comes to self acceptance and the understanding that labels are not needed. In my opinion Carey carefully and thoughtfully writes about gender and identity through ze’s eyes. The story is a beautiful tribute to those questioning who they are and how they fit in to society.
Like many of her books it is also a story about love, the power of love, and what we do for love. In a particularly dark time for the heroes, one speaks up to remind the party that,
The enemy of fear is not courage. The enemy of fear is love, for it is in loving others that we set aide our own personal fears, holding their safety and well-being as our highest regard. Tonight I am afraid, but I take heart from the love I bear for each of you, and for our beloved _______, whose sacrifice we grieve and honor. For your sakes, I abide. For you, I endure. And when I bear this in mind, this baseless fear loses its power over me. Remember this.”
A message that sorely needs to be shared and spread in the world right now. While prophecy may drive the plot forward it is the personal journeys that matter the most. Carey is my all time favorite author and this book is a shining example of why I like her writing so much. The only thing holding me back from a 5 star review is there are echoes of things she has written before. I wish I could give it 4.5 stars.