Tuesday, October 18, 2016
ARC Review: Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst
Title: Of Fire and Stars
Author: Audrey Coulthurst
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Release Date: November 22nd, 2016
I want nothing more than to have the future of fantasy fiction become well-worn stories with women marrying women or men marrying men. I love the fantasy genre and I especially adore that Coulthurst is among the first to write YA LGBTQIA fantasy. But, sadly, I am disappointed to report that Of Fire and Stars is a novel I would recommend skipping, despite the female romance at its core.
For me, one of the main issues with Of Fire and Stars is how completely it throws the reader into its world. We are given no prior knowledge of world-building or character background before cutting straight to Denna's arrival in Mynaria as she prepares to marry Thandi, the prince she has been betrothed to since birth. Denna has had an affinity for fire magic since she was young and though Thandi and his people revile magic, she hopes to keep her abilities a secret for the rest of her life and successfully fulfill her duty to marry the prince and bring an alliance between their two reasons.
Why Mynaria hates magic is a mystery, as is the history of these nations which, very quickly, are upon the bring of war with another small country. Coulthurst tries too hard to create an intriguing political situation but she belittles her audience, failing to give them an adequate backstory or write a unique culture for any of these countries, with the exception of their stance on magic. Thus, the entirety of this novel feels...lacking. It is impossible to get a true grasp of the plot without solid world-building and though the reader becomes accustomed to switching between Denna and Mare, our two narrators, a little more backstory for both heroines would have been useful.
Speaking of Denna and Mare, I will admit that their romance is satisfactory. It is a slow-burn, classic hate-to-love tale and I enjoyed reading of their growing attraction and friendship. However, once again returning to the lack of world-building, neither Denna nor Mare fully explain why they cannot be together. It isn't forbidden to take on lovers or even marry within the same sex in this world but why Denna and Mare cannot form an alliance, instead of Denna and Thandi, is rather puzzling. While I greatly appreciated the fact that sexuality is so fluid in this novel and many of the characters are bisexual, I almost wonder if all of the characters are bisexual until proven otherwise. And while I have nothing wrong that assumption, it almost seems just as dangerous as the assumption that everyone is heterosexual. It fails to account for sexual diversity in a novel that seems as if it must do that, if nothing else.
Another disappointment, for me, is that at times these characters seem incredibly juvenile. And ignorant, perhaps? Both Denna and Mare have grown up in societies where homosexuality is normal yet they ignore their feelings for one another, passing it off as friendship, for most of the novel. While I find this to be realistic in a society where homosexuality is not accepted, I found it confusing in the society Coulthurst created. I find that this is an increasing issue with YA fantasy, in fact--a fantastical, fictional setting often means that issues that plague our world are non-issues within the novel. But I want fantasy to reflect messages and themes that we can learn from in our own worlds, despite the lack of magic, and Of Fire and Stars rather fails on that account.
I will not deny that this novel is fast-paced and entertaining. There are plot twists, sudden deaths, and of course the secrets of Denna's magic. Her blooming romance with Mare is exciting and their clash of wills, especially the manner in which they change one another, is rewarding. I enjoy both of these heroines, individually and together, but the world they've been placed in makes little sense and raises more questions than it answers. For a debut, this shows promise, certainly, but I hope for YA fantasy with LGBTQIA heroines where the plot is just as good as the romance and the diversity is not limited to that of sexual diversity. We have a long way to go in creating diverse, well-written novels but Coulthurst's debut is certainly an important first step in that direction.