by Audrey Coulthurst
“Princesses don’t play with fire.”
Princess Dennaleia of Havemont has been promised to Prince Thandilimon of Mynaria since childhood. The marriage will seal an alliance that will help the two countries defend against their mysterious and powerful Eastern neighbour, Zumourda. Denna has an Affinity for fire, one of the elements tied to worship of the Six. But magic is strictly forbidden in Mynaria, so she must hide her ability when, at sixteen, she is sent south to finally make her marriage vows. In Mynaria, Denna meets Princess Amaranthine, better known as Mare, who is the elder sister of her betrothed. Mare is charged with teaching Denna to ride a horse before the wedding, but soon sparks are flying between the two girls. When the assassination of a member of the royal family threatens to destabilize Mynaria, Denna and Mare must work together to solve the mystery before Mynaria is plunged into war.
Of Fire and Stars will have definite appeal for readers who hate love at first sight. The relationship between Denna and Mare is a bit of a slow burn. Denna appears to be the perfect princess, while Mare has rebelled against all of her family’s expectations, spending most of her time training horses. Her hobby is tolerated because the royal family breeds some of the best horses in the world, and horses are an essential part of Mynarian culture. Mare has no desire to teach a green novice how to ride, and the two get off to a rough start. But after the assassination, Denna feels sidelined by the Directorate, and Mare seems to be the only person who shares her concerns and suspicions about what is going on.
Whether it is because she is nervous in an unfamiliar place, or unusually emotional due to her unexpected feelings for Mare, Denna struggles to control her magic in Mynaria to an extent that never occurred back home in Havemont. She has succeeded in hiding her power, but her arrival in Mynaria nevertheless becomes controversial when it becomes public that the alliance will mean that Havemont will restrict access to the High Adytym, a key place of magical worship for Mynarian pilgrims. Audrey Coulthurst weaves religion and magic together, creating separatist factions, borrowing the term Recusant from the Reformation period. The political and religious conflicts are less well developed than the romance, and Zumourda in particular is a blank slate onto which anything can be written.
While a strong taboo against magic exists in Mynaria, and a slightly less stringent disapproval is noticeable in Havemont, same sex relationships are relatively free of stigma in the world Coulthurst has created. The tension in Denna and Mare’s relationship comes from the threat of upending an important political alliance between their two countries. Denna also feels guilty about breaking the promise she made in her betrothal, despite the fact that she had little choice in the matter. Mare and her brother do not enjoy a close relationship, so Mare feels less guilty about coming between them, and more angry about the fact that her brother doesn’t seem to appreciate Denna’s intelligence or respect her as an equal. There is plenty of complication in their romance, without the need for the shame of homophobia. This dynamic is very similar to the one Malinda Lo created in Ash, and indeed Coulthurst thanks her in the acknowledgments. Interestingly, however, gender roles and expectations still pose a problem for both Denna and Mare, even in a world where a woman can be captain of the guard, a woman is Queen in her own right of a neighbouring kingdom.
Of Fire and Stars is a slow-burn forbidden romance laced with magic, highly recommended for fans of Malinda Lo’s Ash.