Category: Young Adult

Scythe

Cover image for Scythe by Neal Shusterman by Neal Shusterman

ISBN 978-1-4424-7242-6

“She wanted to believe she wasn’t capable of it. She desperately wanted to believe she wasn’t Scythe material. It was the first time in her life that she aspired to fail.”

It has been three hundred years since humanity turned the corner, leaving behind the Age of Mortality. With the arrival of infinite computing power, a benevolent AI known as the Thunderhead emerged to rule this new deathless society. But although accidental death is a thing of the past, humanity still lives on a single finite planet, and so population growth must be limited. This task was deemed to require a human conscience, not to be entrusted to a computer, and so the Scythedom was born. Citra and Rowan have been selected to apprentice to Scythe Faraday, a job that neither of them wants. But there is corruption at the heart of Scythedom, and the Thunderhead is powerless to intervene. Reform must come from within.

There are a lot of practical world-building questions that can be raised about Scythe. How, for example, has humanity advanced so far as to be able to reverse the aging process, but been unable to master space travel, or some other method of supporting an increasing population? And if it is necessary to limit the population, why kill people in often gruesome ways to achieve that end? If you are the nit-picking type, you will probably have a hard time accepting the basic premise of this novel and some of the devices. But if you can achieve the necessary willing suspension of disbelief, you are in for a twisty and thought-provoking adventure that continually ups the stakes.

The main narrative focuses on Citra and Rowan, who are real teenagers who have yet to turn a corner to reset themselves back to youth. They have a limited idea of what life was like in the Mortal Age. Even with the existence of Scythes, they had to give very little thought to death and dying until they were called to perform the task. Interspersed with their perspectives are journal entries from the mandatory gleaning journal of the Honorable Scythe Curie, who is often known as the Grand Dame of Death. Her age and experience interject the perspective that Rowan and Citra lack, providing context to the events of their yearlong apprenticeship. We also get the occasional glimpse into the mind of Scythe Goddard, the main antagonist, who is simultaneously realistic and yet a bit one dimensional.

Scythe depicts a futuristic society with a vastly changed relationship to death and violence. Someone who is accidentally killed is not dead, but deadish, since only Scythes have the authority to take life; no one else can kill you, and you may not kill yourself. One mandatory trip the revival centre later, the deadish person will be back on their feet within a week. The resulting changes are quietly disturbing. Since actual suicide leads to mandatory revival, it has largely passed from memory, but attempting suicide has become a grisly form of entertainment. Rowan’s best friend Tyger is a splatter—someone who deliberately gets deadish by jumping off of buildings. The boredom of immortality is a common trope in vampire fiction, but it is less commonly explored in relation to humanity as a whole.

Due to the non-interference built into the Thunderhead, which rules everything else about this world except death, Scythes have almost unlimited discretionary power. They operate within a quota set for the year by their conclave, but they are free to choose who they will glean and their method of killing. Bias in their selections—such as by race, though almost everyone is mixed race—earns a mild reprimand at best from the conclave. They also have the discretion to grant a year of immunity from gleaning to anyone they choose, though it is customary to offer it to the families of those who have been gleaned, as well as to the families of Scythes and their apprentices, for as long as the Scythes serve. This nearly unbounded power and terrible responsibility has naturally created an order that is isolated from normal people, and sinking further into corruption as the centuries pass. A schism has occurred between the traditional Scythes, and revolutionaries who want to remove the few checks and balances that are in place.

Scythe begins a series, so while it stands alone quite well, there are certainly more issues to explore and questions to be answered. The lines of good and evil are quite starkly drawn here, but there is room to go deeper. Scythe Faraday, for example, is depicted as being part of the traditional group of Scythes who conduct their duties with care and honour, yet he gives some people deaths that are painful, and fill his quotas by mimicking the death statistics of the Age of Mortality. He and Rowan meet when Faraday gleans one of his teenage classmates, a selection that is intended to imitate a drunk driving death from before the turn. In the Age of Immortality, what reason is there for everyone not to have the chance for at least one full life before they face gleaning? Or is gleaning really necessary at all? It will be interesting to see how the morality of this thought-provoking series evolves.

The Hate U Give

Cover image for The Hate U Give by Angie Thomasby Angie Thomas

ISBN 978-0-06-249853-3

“It seems like they always talk about what he may have said, what he may have done, what he may not have done. I didn’t know a dead person could be charged in his own murder, you know?”

Starr Carter is a girl with a foot in two worlds. By day, she attends Williamson, a suburban prep school where she is one of only two black students in her year. In the evening, she goes home to Garden Heights, the city’s poor, black neighbourhood, where she has lived all her life. She is one person at home and another person at school, because she can’t be too “bougie” in the neighbourhood, or too “ghetto” at school. But the wall she has carefully built between her two selves begins to crumble when she is the only witness to a police officer shooting and killing her childhood friend, Khalil. The killing gains national headlines as protestors take to the streets to protest the murder of yet another unarmed black boy. In the day’s following Khalil’s death, Starr faces a choice between remaining silent, and speaking up. But even if she can find her voice, will it be enough to get justice for Khalil?

One of my favourite aspects of The Hate U Give was Starr’s family. Her mother is a nurse, and her father is an ex-gang member who now runs a convenience store. Her mother wants to move the family out of Garden Heights, while her father is determined to remain in the neighbourhood and contribute to its betterment. She has a younger brother who isn’t old enough to quite grasp what is going on, and an older half-brother who is fully part of their family, yet still connected to his mother and other sisters. Her uncle is a police officer who works in the same department as the man who killed Khalil. Starr’s family feels warm and incredibly real, complicated, and human. Most of the story’s more didactic moments are seamlessly written into conversations with her parents as they try to help her through the aftermath of Khalil’s murder. Starr’s father, Big Mav, was perhaps my favourite character, especially with his theory about how Hogwarts houses are like gangs. After getting out of the gang life himself, Big Mav is determined to keep his children safe, but he struggles with how to do that while also keeping them connected to where they came from.

While I loved Starr’s family best, her peer relationships are equally notable. Even before Khalil’s death, Starr notices that her relationship with her best friends, Maya and Hailey, is changing. Angie Thomas really captures the painful experience of growing apart from childhood friends. In the case of Khalil, Starr is left to regret that she let him slip largely out of her life, and now he is gone forever. And as she watches Hailey and Maya react to Khalil’s murder—without knowing she is the witness—she is left with difficult choices about whether or not her school friendships can survive the class and cultural divides between them. For the past year, Starr has also been hiding from her father the fact that she is dating Chris, a white classmate, and the time has come for her to face up to her complicated feelings about this relationship. Starr learns a lot by talking things through with her dad, but she also has to figure out how to have difficult conversations with her friends.

Someone who we don’t get to know very well is Khalil himself. His murder is the book’s inciting incident, so he is alive only for the first couple of chapters. Afterward, there is a stark conflict between Starr’s memory of her friend, and the image of him portrayed in the media. He becomes a symbol more than a person. While we learn a few new facts over the course of the story that help flesh Khalil out, he is still someone we did not know until he was already gone—which of course is true of the real-life victims of police brutality. I was reminded of Claudia Rankine’s essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” in The Fire This Time, in which she writes about how victims are transformed from individuals to evidence, a process which their loved ones are helpless to prevent.

The Hate U Give is a brutal coming-of-age story about the harsh realities that face young black men and women in America. It is fundamentally about identity, and Starr’s struggle to bring the two halves of herself together. But it is also about families, communities, and building relationships. The strength of this narrative is in the way it balances the hard topics—racism, police violence, gangs, drugs—with themes of family, friendship, justice, and love.

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You might also like Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

The Cursed Queen (The Impostor Queen #2)

by Sarah Fine

ISBN 978-1-4814-4193-3

“Thyra is not an eager fighter like I am, but when she commits, she is a thing of absolute, cutting beauty, and I hunger for the sight.”

Taken as a raid prize as a child, and passed from tribe to tribe, Ansa has no idea of her origins, but she has made a place for herself among the Krigere, earning her rank as a warrior with blood and plunder. She is loyal to her chieftain, Lars, and most of all, to his daughter and heir, Thyra. Spurred by the victory Lars’ brother has won over the city of Vasterut, the Krigere set their eyes on crossing the Torden to conquer Kupari. No one truly believed the Kupari witch queen was anything other than a myth until she called down the storm that destroyed the Krigere fleet. Ansa and Thyra are among the few survivors, and Thyra will need Ansa more than ever as she fights to unite the Krigere under her leadership, even as she must convince them that they will need to change their way of life in order to survive. But with her dying breath, the witch queen cursed Ansa with ice and fire that threaten to devour her, or turn her into a weapon against the people she has claimed as her own. Her loyalty will be tested at every turn as she tries to control the curse or find a way to rid herself of it forever.

Sarah Fine’s companion novel to The Imposter Queen largely takes place simultaneous to the events in the first volume. The first three-quarters of the book retreads the same timeline, from the battle on the Motherlake/Torden and through to the fight for the Temple on the Rock. The last hundred pages of The Cursed Queen continues on past the end of the first book to set Elli and Ansa on a collision course. Known as the Soturi to the Kupari people in The Imposter Queen, they call themselves the Krigere. They largely appear as a typical invading barbarian race in the first novel, but here Sarah Fine takes the unusual step of turning to their perspective for the second installment in her series. The Krigere are divided into two groups; the warriors and the andeners. The warriors are the leaders, and they protect the andeners and go out raiding to provide for those under their care. The andeners in turn supply the warriors, crafting and repairing weapons, maintaining the camp, and caring for the children while the warriors are away raiding. Each group relies on the other for survival.

Fine sets up an interesting cultural dynamic with this system of raiders and andeners. The warriors are both men and women, and after their first raiding season, they are generally expected to make a partnership with an andener. The partner may be either male or female; what is unheard of among the Krigere is for a warrior to partner with another warrior. This poses a problem for Ansa, who is in love with Thyra. In order for them to be together, one of them would have to give up warrior status. Ansa is the natural fighter of the two of them, but the Chieftain must be a warrior. Thus Sarah Fine creates a conflict that keeps the two apart which is rooted in the Krigere culture, but does not rely on either sexism or homophobia, which I found refreshing. The situation only grows more complex when Thyra becomes Chieftain, and begins proposing changes to the Krigere way of life that Ansa has adopted so thoroughly as her own. Lars’ brother Nisse hews more closely to the old ways which Ansa has been taught to uphold, but what she does not see at first is that he values andenders for little more than their reproductive function, to replenish their diminished fighting force.

The Cursed Queen is related from Ansa’s point of view, and unfortunately I found myself more interested in getting Thyra’s perspective. Ansa has a hot temper and is always ready to fight to try to solve any problem that comes her way. Thyra is a skilled fighter, but one who prefers to think first, and pursue other options before drawing blood, so I was able to relate to her more of the two. Ansa’s confusion and divided loyalties are completely understandable, but as a result her relationship with Thyra becomes so antagonistic over the course of the book that it was hard for me to imagine them making up and getting together. I think this will need to be addressed in the final volume in order for me to really get aboard this ship. However, I am still very interested to see how Sarah Fine will bring Elli and Ansa together in The True Queen, due in in Spring 2018.

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You might also like Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

The Impostor Queen

Cover image for The Impostor Queenby Sarah Fine

ISBN 978-1-4814-4190-2

“When the magic leaves our current queen and enters you, Elli, you will become the most powerful Valtia who has ever existed.”

For three hundred years the Valtias have ruled the Kupari from the Temple on the Rock, the only wielders of the unique Kupari magic who can balance both fire and ice. The Valtia uses her magic to protect and shelter her people, but the magic exacts a terrible price, and these girl-queens die young, bodies devoured by their own terrible power. Elli has been raised in the Temple as the Saadella, heir to the Valtia, schooled in service to the Kupari people, prepared to receive the magic when the current Valtia dies. Yet despite the fact that Elli is prophesied to be the most powerful Valtia who ever lived, when her predecessor dies, the magic does not enter her, leaving the Kupari vulnerable to the increasingly hostile raids of the neighouring Soturi. Exiled to the Outlands, Elli takes shelter with a group of bandits who defy the rules of the Temple, and refuse to turn their magic wielders over to the Temple Elders. For the first time, Elli has a reason to question the order under which she was raised, bringing to light the terrible abuses of the very system which she was sworn to uphold.

The opening of the book drops the reader into Elli’s day to day life as the Saadella, a relatively slow-paced sequence that allows Sarah Fine to lay out fascinating hints about the world in which the story takes place. Elli’s point of view is naïve, but there are hints early on that all is not well with the Valtia system of rule. In general, Fine spends a lot of time on the characters and the world, and the plot doesn’t truly pick up until the outlanders begin to question Elli’s appearance in their midst, and the unusual changes her presence seems to invoke in magic wielders, such as Oskar, a brooding ice-wielder who would prefer to deny his magic, despite suffering from the consequences. However, patience with this slow approach is rewarded as the truth about the Valtias begins to come to light.

Elli is sixteen when the story opens, just as rumours begin to swirl that the current Valtia is weakening, and may soon pass her power to her heir. Elli has had a sheltered upbringing in the Temple, where she must be kept safe and pure so that she is a fit vessel to receive the Valtia’s magic when the time comes. She is even kept largely separate from the Valtia, who must devote most of her time and energy to serving her people, and maintaining the balance of her magic. Elli is instead educated for her future role by the Elders of the Temple, who put off many of her most pressing questions with the excuse that she must be kept pure. As a result, Elli is a rather immature sixteen, never having had to dress or fend for herself a day in her life until she faces her exile. All she has going for her is a deeply inculcated sense of duty, which translates into a strong work ethic when she joins the community of Outland bandits who have rejected the demands of the Temple.

As Elli begins to understand why the Valtia’s magic didn’t pass to her, she finds herself caught between prophecy and free will. The stars indeed foretold her birth, but the Elders of the Temple were not in possession of the entire prophecy. With so much already decided, it is hard for Elli to believe that she can wield what little power and knowledge she does possess to shape her fate, let alone the destiny of the Kupari. Having lived a life with little control over anything, Elli is torn between her habit of accepting her fate, and the desire to finally seize control of her own path, even as others continue to be determined to choose for her. The curiosity that the Elders ruthlessly supressed in her as Saadella comes roaring to the fore, but her questioning nature does not fit in among many of the Outlanders either, especially Sig, the fire-wielder who would prefer decisive action against the Temple at any cost.

I was engrossed by the slowly peeled back layers of the world and magic system that are unveiled as Elli sheds her sheltered upbringing and begins to understand something about the history of the Kupari magic. Although Elli was understandably immature, I enjoyed her character development as she came to terms with having the future she always expected ripped away, and then grappling with the fact that people still want to control her, and how easy it would be to let them. She is also daunted by a potential romance, after expecting to live a life of chastity in service to the Kupari people. I look forward to seeing how Sarah Fine complements this with her companion novel, The Cursed Queen, and then brings the series together with the conclusion that is due out in 2018.

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Also by Sarah Fine:
Of Metal and Wishes 

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World

Cover image for Here We Are, Edited by Kelly JensenEdited by Kelly Jensen

ISBN 978-1-61620-586-7

“Whether you identify as a feminist now or are curious about how people come to label themselves as feminists and own that identity, these pieces will help you begin your journey through the various paths, influences, and experiences toward feminism.”

Feminism is a concept that has been loaded down with a lot of cultural baggage. This collection of essays, poems, comics, and lists pulls together a selection of pieces for a teen audience that aim to clarify misconceptions, share experiences, and reinforce empathy for a variety of journeys and perspectives. The contributors include men and women, cis and trans, from different backgrounds and social experiences, touching on everything from race, to mental health, to disability. The scrap-book style collection strikes a balance, speaking to teens at an introductory level without being condescending, while addressing everything from body image to sexuality to relationships and pop culture.

Here We Are contains enough broad variety that no doubt different pieces will speak to different readers. It is reaffirming to read about people who share your experiences, and enlightening to read about different ones. One of my personal favourites was “The Choice is Yours” by Kody Keplinger, about her long-standing decision not to have kids. Keplinger ties the expectation for women to reproduce, and the charge of selfishness against those who voluntarily do not, into the way women are socialized to put the needs of others before their own. Like Keplinger, I first said the words “I don’t want to have kids” at a fairly young age and, like Keplinger, was immediately told “You’ll change your mind.” I wish I could bookmark this essay, and put Here We Are in the hands of my twelve-year-old self, because it would have meant everything to finally hear an adult woman say that my decision was both valid and viable. To borrow another quote from Ashley Hope Pérez’s essay, “It would have changed everything, it would have changed nothing, it would have made all the difference in the world.”

Fellow book lovers will probably also strongly relate to the essay “Reading Worthy Women.” In high school, Nova Ren Suma was excited to take the popular World Humanities course. The piece chronicles her heartbreaking realization that there were no women on the syllabus, and when she stayed after class to confront her teacher, he informed her that there were no women worthy of being on his syllabus. This kicked off a five year period of rebellion, which lasted through college, during which time, outside of school, she only read books written by women because “It’s not a silly pursuit to read beyond what’s handed to you, to seek out new voices and leap over the usual books everyone’s already talking about and see what you can find on your own.” The concept of pushing the boundaries of the canon is an important one, which is also present in Brenna Clarke Gray’s piece “Choose Your Own Adventure” about fandom as a feminist act.

Book Riot editor and Stacked writer Kelly Jensen has pulled together a collection of essays representing the many and diverse facets of feminism, creating an intersectional introduction to the movement. Interspersed with the longer essays are short, fun pieces, such as feminist music playlists, a list of “Ten Amazing Scientists (Who Also Happen to Be Women)”, as well as songs, poetry, and a list of the best girl friendships in fiction. While straight-up essays are the most common type of piece, Wendy Xu’s entry “The Princess and the Witch” is in the form of a comic, and there are several interviews as well. Most of the contributions are original, though some such as Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminism: Take Two” and Amandla Stenberg’s “Don’t Cash Crop My Corn Rows” are either reproductions or adaptations of previously published material. There were only a few things I thought were notably absent, such as a piece about affirmative consent to complement the discussion of rape culture. The chapter on romance and sexuality could also have used an essay about asexuality and aromanticism. Overall, however, I was pleased with the diversity of this introduction to feminism, and would heartily recommend it.

The Sun is Also a Star

Cover image for The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoonby Nicola Yoon

ISBN 978-0-553-49668-0

“Observable Fact: You should never take long shots. Better to study the odds and take the probable shot. However, if the long shot is your only shot, then you have to take it.”

Natasha is an undocumented Jamaican immigrant who has been in the United States since she was eight years old, and today is her last day in New York. Tonight, she and her family have to get on a plane and go back to Jamaica, all thanks to her father’s DUI. But Natasha is desperate to stay, to graduate high school, to go to college. Everything—her life, her future, almost all of her memories—is here. Daniel is the second son of hard-working South Korean immigrants. Today, he must put on his suit, cut his long hair, and put aside his dreams of being a poet. Today, he has an admissions interview for Yale University, where his parents expect him to study to become a doctor. When Natasha and Daniel’s paths cross, their romance is destined to end almost as soon as it begins. How much can you love in a single day?

When Natasha and Daniel meet, there is an undeniable chemistry, even if Natasha initially—and understandably—refuses to be open to it. She has bigger things to worry about than the cute Korean boy who thinks that they are destined to be together. Nicola Yoon uses this New York Times article as the basis for Daniel and Natasha’s experiment. When the empirical Natasha refuses to accept Daniel’s idealistic belief in love at first sight, he challenges her to spend the day replicating a lab experiment where scientists used increasingly intimate personal questions and prolonged eye contact to try to spark a romance between the subjects. With time to kill before her long-shot appointment with an immigration lawyer that afternoon, Natasha grudgingly agrees.

The Sun is Also a Star requires a certain level of buy-in from the reader. I don’t think you need to believe in love at first sight, but you do need to accept that sometimes two people have an instant, electric connection that signals the possibility of love further down the road. Daniel and Natasha experience an accelerated intimacy spurred by the limitations of circumstance. Whereas Daniel is romantic and idealistic, Natasha has trained herself to guard against disappointment, to always make the reliable choice. She likes things to be quantifiable and certain. I am definitely more Natasha than Daniel, but thanks to Natasha’s healthy skepticism, I was still able to get caught up in their whirlwind romance. If the story had been entirely from Daniel’s point of view, I think I would have had a harder time buying in.

Yoon employs short chapters that alternate quickly between Natasha and Daniel’s perspectives. But sprinkled in are other short interludes from the fleeting perspectives of secondary characters, from waitresses to security guards that they encounter throughout the day. Each glimpse shows that while this is not their story, the secondary characters are fully fledged people with stories of their own. Natasha and Daniel’s actions have ripples that affect these people in ways they could not imagine, just as some of the minor characters have outsize impacts on their single day together. If you can accept the level of coincidence that Yoon employs, these additional perspectives are quite beautiful.

Though Natasha and Daniel’s romance anchors the story, family also plays an important role. Natasha’s father came to New York with dreams of becoming an actor, but has been ground down by repeated failure. Natasha wishes she could blame the failure on her father’s lack of skill, but the truth is that he is a great actor who has be unable to crack a system that is stacked against him. Meanwhile, her mother has worked hard to prop up the family as her father slides into despair. Daniel’s parents have worked hard to give their sons a better future, even if they have a very circumscribed idea of what that success might look like. Daniel and his brother Charlie have a fraught relationship that has been shaped by this pressure. Reflections on immigration, family, and talent add depth to the romantic plot.

Ultimately, I do not think that this is a story that will work for everyone, particularly those who are put off by whirlwind romances, since the love story is the primary narrative here. But if you can get past that initial barrier, Nicola Yoon has written a touching, bittersweet story of first love.

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Also by Nicola Yoon:

Everything, Everything 

The Disappearance of Ember Crow (Tribe #2)

Cover image for The Disappearance of Ember Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullinaby Ambelin Kwaymullina

ISBN 978-0-7636-7843-2

“I was sad for everything the girl would never be and for a society that drove people with abilities into horrible places and horrible choices. For all the lost chances, and all the lost people.”

After rescuing the detainees from Detention Centre Three, and exposing Chief Administrator Neville Rose’s violation of the Benign Technology Accords, Ashala and Connor escaped back to the Firstwood. But Ashala has been living with her wolves since their return, keeping herself apart from Connor and the Tribe. As a Sleepwalker, she can affect the real world through her dreams, and since the events of The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, she has been suffering fierce nightmares that make her fear she will hurt someone she cares about. But the disappearance of Ember, one of the other leaders of the Tribe, pulls her back to her duty. Ashala doesn’t really believe that Ember would leave the Tribe of her own free will. But has she been taken, or has she been caught up in something so dangerous that she is staying away in order to protect them?

Along with Georgie, who can catch glimpses of the future, Ember is one of the Illegals who helps Ashala lead the Tribe. Her ability to alter memories was central to the Tribe’s plans to infiltrate the detention centre and expose Neville Rose’s plans to the world. Ashala remains the narrator of the book, but significant portions of the middle section are related from Ember’s point-of-view. The use of Ember’s ability is a less explosive twist because it is no longer as much of a narrative surprise, but Ambelin Kwaymullina still finds clever ways to incorporate it into the story.

In The Disappearance of Ember Crow, dissent against the Citizenship Accords that bind people with abilities is growing thanks to the work of the Tribe, and a change in the leadership of Gull City. However, the narrative centers on developing the backstory of Ashala’s world, and specifically how their society grew up out of the ashes of the old world. The Reckoning itself is not much discussed, nor do we learn the origin of Illegals’ abilities. It is mentioned that immediately after the Reckoning, only very few people had abilities, suggesting that they are either an artefact of the new world, or a very rare carry over from the old that has now become more common. Instead, Kwaymullina focuses on Alexander Hoffman, the near-prophetic figure who was instrumental to defining the principles of the new society. We also delve into the origin of the Citizenship Accords, the laws that prevent Illegals from using their abilities, or existing as full Citizens.

In the midst of all these revelations, Ashala and Connor track Ember to Spinifex City, where another old world spirit sleeps. Ashala realizes that as with many of the Tribe, she knows very little about Ember’s life before the Firstwood. Her father may be dead, but it turns out that he was not the only member of Ember’s family. Her living siblings are as unique as she is, and some of them are even more dangerous. The Disappearance of Ember Crow is a promising and revelatory addition to the Tribe series, leading into the final volume of the trilogy, due to be released in North America in May 2017.

Of Fire and Stars

of-fire-and-starsby Audrey Coulthurst

ISBN 978-0-06-243325-1

“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.