Two sisters' reviews of Young Adult and Middle Grade books, inspired by their lovely library.
Of Fire and Stars is an incredibly beautiful debut novel. I was SO incredibly excited to get my hands on it ever since the description came out late last year (not to mention when the cover was released: absolutely stunning!), which only revealed the bare minimum: a princess with magic is betrothed to a foreign prince but falls in love with his sister instead. Sounds like my spirit book if there ever was one!
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy, LGBT, Romance, Adventure
Rating: 5 stars
Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.
Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses before her coronation—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine (called Mare), sister of her betrothed.
When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two work together, each discovers there’s more to the other than she thought. Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. Soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.
But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.
Of Fire and Stars is an incredibly beautiful debut novel. I was SO incredibly excited to get my hands on it ever since the description came out late last year (not to mention when the cover was released: absolutely stunning!), which only revealed the bare minimum: a princess with magic is betrothed to a foreign prince but falls in love with his sister instead. Sounds like my spirit book if there ever was one! I pre-ordered it at my favorite local independently owned bookstore and picked it up as soon as I could, sitting down with a cup of tea in front of the fire minutes after finishing my previous book (the highly recommended Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith).
The pacing at the beginning is very good, with immediate action and introduction to a wide cast of characters. The prologue and first chapter are narrated in first person from Princess Dennaleia’s point of view, and then begins to switch back and forth between her and Crown Prince Thandilimon’s sister, Princess Amaranthine, called Mare (lots of long names I know, but I quite like them).
Although I normally don’t enjoy switching perspectives very much (I tend to have a favorite perspective and then not want to read the other chapters), in this case I was very glad Audrey Coulthurst decided to write her book this way, especially introducing Denna at the beginning. First of all, hearing both girls’ perspectives makes the romance that much stronger, since as readers we know how they both feel about each other, and how their feelings develop. Secondly, Mare’s first impression of Denna is not all together positive. She sees Denna as a rather weak, pathetic, typical “princess-type” (which is not true at all). Although (clearly) her thoughts about Denna later change, this might have ruined my own opinion of the other girl had the reader not been introduced to her and her own strengths first (coming back to this later on). Finally, the shifting perspectives help the reader get to know both girls more intimately, and they are both very worth knowing.
Mare (a very suitable nickname) is a strong-willed, strong-muscled “warrior princess,” in the realm of Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Alanna from Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce, and Yelena from Poison Study by Mara V. Snyder (all highly recommended books). In the tradition of her homeland, the kingdom of Mynaria, she trains horses and forges strong personal connections with her mounts (a fantastic example of an author writing about what she knows best — according to her bio Audrey is a devoted equestrian herself, and it shows in her writing!). Contrarily, Denna has never ridden a horse in her life, but is a talented scholar and knows her way around a library and court room. She has her own form of physical strength in the form of her fire magic, a hereditary talent she can’t control and would rather be without, because in Mynaria, magic is hated and illegal.
Personally, I felt a stronger connection with Denna’s character out of the two girls. I love the tough warrior woman as much as the next Tamora Pierce fan, but I have absolutely nothing in common with her (and I’m assuming my fellow bookworms feel the same way — unless you’re also secretly a horse-riding, arrow-shooting, sword-wielding, sailor-swearing, britches-wearing (jeans don’t count) badass). Characters like Denna selfishly help me with my own self-confidence, because although they prefer the library to the sparring ground, they are still appreciated for their own skills and the strength of their intelligence and knowledge. The one critique I do have about the switching perspectives is that since they are both in first person and both main characters are females, all the “shes” become quite confusing, and I sometimes had to flip back to the beginning of the chapter to check which female was talking about the other one (thus I probably wouldn’t recommend this book as an audiobook, unless each girl is read in a different voice or by another narrator, in which case it would be a better choice!).
Now to the part that makes me want to happily rant forever: the amazing LGBT romance set in a world where being gay is normal and unremarkable (a.k.a. how our world should be). Audrey Coulthurst does the most wonderful thing that many other wonderful LGBT books such as Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Beauty Queens by Libba Bray still can’t quite avoid — making “being gay” something that is discussed, grappled with, and finally accepted (either by the person in question or their peers). In fact, at no point in Of Fire and Stars are the words “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “straight,” etc. even mentioned! Because in Mare and Denna’s world, being gay doesn’t even warrant its own title or word or label: it never even gets a second glance. (Instead, having magic is the unavoidable factor that people are persecuted for, because there must always be some sort of oppression of the “other”!) In this romance novel, the problem is not the girls’ gender but the fact that Denna is already betrothed (to her lover’s brother no less), and has a duty to both kingdoms to go through with the wedding. In addition, I love the fact that the two main characters aren’t the only two LGBT characters in the book, which would make them seem more unusual and unique. In addition to one minor character whose girlfriend is mentioned, there are multiple instances of subtle references to same-sex couples throughout the book that I adored for the casual, ordinary way in which they are treated.
“We joined them and twirled through the crowd, with me clumsily following the baron’s lead. Almost immediately, I bumped into a pair of men dancing. They gave us a dirty look, but I didn’t care” (page 24).
“I didn’t see the point in mooning over some other boy when I had always been promised to Thandilimon. Eventually, I got so tired of her harassment that I chose one at random: Olin, the baker’s son. But after a while it became clear that my supposed crush was doomed when Olin started courting Ryan, one of the handsome squires Ali fancied” (page 89).
Clearly, this is an issue I am personally very passionate about, and I completely adored the way this book treated it. I find that too many YA LGBT books these days are all about the struggle of begin gay, or coming out, or are set in contemporary times (which I personally dislike), and I’ve been a bit obsessed lately with YA fantasy novels that combine LGBT themes into the typical magic and monsters. A recent favorite is Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, and books high on my to-read list include Ash by Malinda Lo, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, As I Descended by Robin Talley, and A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith (and I’m wide open for more suggestions!).
Plot-wise, Of Fire and Stars could use a bit of work. Although it begins on a high note and the final fifty pages are fast-paced and full of twists, the plot sags a bit in the middle. There are a few murders thrown in, a building romance, and quite a bit of court intrigue, but the way the politics are presented are in a royal court room with seated rulers and ambassadors discussing the complex rules and relationships between nations. Not the most engaging. These court room scenes were often the ones where I decided it was time for bed or my next meal, and thus it took me five days to actually finish this book (at my current rate that’s quite a long time). But Of Fire and Stars is a debut book, and although the plot and pacing are no Graceling (one of my all-time favorite debut novels…. Kristin Cashore, please write more!), I have very high hopes for Audrey Coulthurst’s future in YA fiction. And her amazing finale to this book makes up for any slowness leading up to it!
Full of fighting with both daggers and surprisingly powerful magic, frantic chase scenes, shocking murder and betrayal, lovely romance, and revealed secret histories, the conclusion to Of Fire and Stars is one of the best I’ve encountered in a while. It actually made me slightly teary (out of happiness, I promise) and as soon as I finished I hugged the book to my chest and just stared at the ceiling for a few minutes. Although I did suspect the assassin/betrayer from the beginning, I blame that on the sheer number of books I’ve already read (you begin to pick up a few plot patterns) and still hail author’s skill in deception (I had no idea how “it” was done!). Finally, I love the fact that this book is a standalone. Although the ending could lead to a second book (an epilogue/”how the mess was cleaned up”-type sequel), I thought the hinting at the future was plenty (I really don’t need another trilogy right now), and made me just as satisfied as another 400 page book would.
To make a very long story short (this is the longest review I think I’ve ever written), although this book wasn’t the absolutely amazing Harry Potter, fan-fiction inspiring, novel of the decade I was hoping for, I realize that my hopes might have been just a wee bit too high. Audrey Coulthurst’s debut is surprising, sweet, and stunning in its message, and well worth reading. If I haven’t yet convinced you, I found many parallels in Of Fire and Stars to Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl: both include secret magic, royalty, personal connections with horses, a foreign betrothal, forbidden romance, and a squeal-out-loud happy ending!
If you’re yearning to get your hands on a copy of Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst right this instant, you can start here and read the first two chapters free from Epic Reads.
Have you read Of Fire and Stars yet? Any other YA Fantasy novels with LGBT romances to recommend?