OF FIRE AND STARS by Audrey Coulthurst

I submitted this piece to one of the places for which I write reviews. They handed it back to me as unduly cruel to a debut author writing in an underrepresented subgenre. I will not name the venue. “Unduly cruel” may be a fair criticism of this review. So if you read on, be warned.

(I will write and sell at some point, I hope, a longer essay on the stakes involved with writing about underrepresented groups and the extra frustration when a cool premise in that regard turns out to have crappy execution.)

Of Fire and Stars is Audrey Coulthurst’s debut novel, out of the Balzer + Bray HarperCollins imprint. It’s a novel that I wanted very much to like.

Unfortunately, I found myself very disappointed by it. One might go so far as to say I was brutally underwhelmed by its achievements.

Of Fire and Stars promised me a princess, Dennaleia of Havemont, sent away from home to fulfill an arranged marriage. A princess who falls in love with her betrothed’s unconventional sister, Amaranthine, better known as “Mare”. With extra magic and all sorts of hijinks. That’s what it promised me.

You’d think it might be difficult for such an intriguing premise to turn out bland and somewhat boring, wouldn’t you? I mean, wouldn’t you?

As it turns out, you’d be wrong.

Let me enumerate the ways in which Of Fire and Stars disappoints:

Everyone in this book is an idiot. There are constant, confused — and confusing — infodumps about politics, and a cast of political actors who… well, let’s just say I’ve seen more sophisticated school yearbook committees, and leave it at that. In politics everyone has an agenda! Often more than one! This book does not have any clue how to depict that effectively. No one has the least suspicion that a Helpful Guy might be manipulating everyone for his own profit. Neither princess knows how to lie. I can’t see a single redeeming feature about the prince, who may be a complete incompetent — jury’s out, because no one in this book is particularly competent.

And every so often, we’re treated to a scene of the ruling body of the country sitting around a table yelling infodumps at each other — and committee meetings are just as boring to read about as they are in real life, unless you can appreciate cunning politics in play.

Of course, that means there needs to actually be cunning politics.

Of Fire and Stars is told in the first person, alternating points of view between Dennaleia and Mare. Neither of the voices are particularly well-defined. Neither of them can be easily distinguished from each other. Denna and Mare are thinly drawn protagonists, and unfortunately the members of their surrounding cast are just as thin, if not more so. In the main, character motivation is ridiculously shallow, where it isn’t confused. And the pacing — It’s all over the place.

I haven’t even mentioned the worldbuilding. “Lightly sketched” might be overstating the case: there is very little solid here, very little that feels real or plausible or even that follows the general constraints of physical geography. It also possesses an unfortunate lack of linguistic tact in its naming conventions — if they were sufficiently consistent that I might call them conventions, that is.

Sod me, I wanted to like this book. I really wanted to like it: there’s not so much mainstream fantasy with queer lady protagonists out there. I’m always looking for reasons to love every single one.

It is a perpetual canard of the “anti-PC” crowd that “social justice warriors” promote politics over quality, in art. And untrue as that is, I’m prepared to give something that tells a story I don’t often get to see — a story like this — much more benefit of the doubt than I otherwise would.

But Of Fire and Stars makes me want to get out the Immortan Joe MEDIOCRE clip.

It is mediocre at best. I spent the three hours it took me to finish it hoping against hope, hoping desperately, that it would show a glimmer of something great before the end. A hint of shine. A promise of better things.

NOPE.

It lets the queer lady awesome side down, is what it does.

Of course, part of my problem here is scarcity. And scarcity, where it comes to queer female protagonists who do not end up dead or miserable, is a major problem. I’m annoyed at Of Fire and Stars, and frustrated by it. Would I be as annoyed if I had acres of stories with queer female protagonists to choose from?

No. I wouldn’t be nearly as annoyed.

And that’s not fair to Of Fire and Stars. But we don’t have acres. We have a scant handful every year. (Even scanter if we look for stories whose protagonists aren’t white.) So every example carries an unfair weight of hopes and expectations: every example’s success is a wedge by which to pry open more space to tell these kinds of stories to wider audiences.

And failure therefore, particularly on economic grounds, becomes a stick that can be used to beat that wedge back.

I wish I could simply not care that Of Fire and Stars is a mediocre offering for the Young Adult marketplace. I wish I had that luxury. Just say “meh,” and let that be an end to it. Instead, I find myself uncomfortably rooting for the success of a novel that I find at best third-rate, because if it sinks without a trace, who the hell knows when I’ll see another fantasy take on a similar premise?

And this is an unhappy place to land.