Format: Hardback novel
Jacqueline Carey is one of my favorite authors. I don’t read much epic fantasy, because I often find it formulaic and predictable, not to mention overwhelming with details, but Carey’s novel Kushiel’s Dart and its subsequent sequels (currently numbering nine, in total) is maybe my favorite fantasy series of all time. Her urban fantasy/paranormal romance Agent of Hel series is also excellent, managing to do something unique and compelling with a played-out genre.
Thus, it was with great excitement that I picked up Starless, Carey’s latest effort in the epic fantasy genre. This is a stand-alone novel in a new secondary world, one which is never named but has three moons. In this world, the gods were once stars in the sky, but were cast down, and have since come to live among mortals, blessing the people who worship them and live in their lands with special abilities and prophecies.
When we meet our protagonist, Khai, he’s 11 years old, living among warrior-monks in the desert. Khai is, naturally, part of a prophecy, born simultaneously (during an eclipse) with a princess, and thus her “shadow.” He spends his days training to become her protector. This first section of the book, where Khai learns to become a super badass ninja bodyguard, reminded me strongly of Rati Mehrotra’s recent novel Markswoman. Are Desert Assassin Clan Novels a trend?
Only about one-third to one-half of the book is spent among the desert warrior-monks. The second portion occurs at the royal court in the city, where Khai finally meets his soul-twin Zariya, and the third portion occurs on the ocean, as Khai and Zariya and a group of random strangers journey to fulfill a prophecy that will save all of existence. If it sounds to you like the book has an identity problem, you’d be right. After the first section, it often felt rushed, and I wondered if this book hadn’t originally been planned as three novels, rather than one. My least favorite section was the third, where Khai and Zariya are attempting to fulfill the prophecy, as this portion felt awfully Tolkien-esque. The trouble with prophecies is that they make the book predictable, and, in my opinion, they remove all agency from the protagonists. Now I’m just reading about a bunch of characters to whom I have little connection–because there are just so many characters and species and gods to remember in this book, y’all–going from point A to point B to point C, dealing with obstacles we all know they’ll overcome one way or another. All the tension has been sucked out of the narrative.
That said, if you enjoy that sort of fiction, which (judging from the continued popularity of Tolkien’s books) plenty of people do, then this novel is right up your alley. I do think the publishers missed the mark on a couple of items: this should have been marketed as a Young Adult novel, as it’s chock full of young adult characters and themes, and it should have been allowed the room to breathe that three–or even two–books would have given the story. I did finish it, but it became a bit grueling at 587 pages. Still, it’s a good novel that deserves at least three stars.
I’m giving this novel an additional star for excellent representation. I don’t want to give much away, as it’s kind of a major plot point, but there’s more to Khai than initially meets the eye. This is another reason I think the book should have been marketed as YA; young people need the kind of LGBTQ, POC, and disabled character representation featured here. It made my heart glad to read it, but I fear a lot of young people won’t pick up Starless because it’s marketed to adults and because it’s just such a hefty tome, which is really a pity. If you have a young person in your life looking for something to read after finishing Lord of the Rings, then this is it.
Overall, I give this book 4/5 desert ninja bodyguards.
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