We Free the Stars is one of those sequels with which you really should do a re-read of the first book (We Hunt the Flame in this case) right before you pick up the second. There were a lot of characters brought back or brought up that I didn’t remember well from the first novel, and it took me a while to remember the details that would have helped their reappearance make more sense.
We Free the Stars is a direct sequel that picks up almost exactly where the first novel stops; Zafira and companions are on a quest to save their world and respective homes from the threat of the Lion of the Night who is presented as a sort of demon of sorts. Exactly what he is is a little unclear, even with the brief backstory glimpse in this novel. Maybe this is one of those things I don’t remember from the first novel; anyways, the team has made some advances in their quest, but also face significant challenges since there are quite a few misunderstandings and some physical separations that need fixing before the adventure can really get going again. This takes nearly half the novel, and results in some uneven pacing. The quest is now get the hearts of the Sisters back to their minarets, defeat the Lion, and get magic and stability back to the world. Add to this various personal struggles, especially for Zafira who has to deal both with her feelings for Nasir but also to sharing her mind with the Jarwarat, a living book that houses the memories of the Sisters among other things. The first book had a lot of Zaphira and Nasir’s thoughts, and this one keeps that up, but we also get more from Altair which does make things more interesting since he’s the unpredictable one in a lot of ways.
I have to admit I also did not remember Kifah, a soldier from a neighboring country with ties to Altair. She has a pretty big role in this book, and some interesting bits in terms of being the voice of open honesty about feelings and intentions. She might actually be one of my favorite characters now. She has a strong sense of self and she’s also pretty smart about a lot of things.
The magic system and background history of this whole world is pretty intriguing, especially since it seems to be based on folklore or mythology from the Middle East which I’m not very familiar with. General plot and characterwise, there is a lot of traditional fantasy stuff going on, but the actual content and detail is what makes it interesting. There’s also an interesting degree of realism to the emotions, which makes the romance more tolerable for my admittedly low threshold for personal angst, and the whole novel a little more nuanced.