Book Review: Starless by Jacqueline Carey
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor (June 12, 2018)
Length: 592 pages
I’m a huge fan of Jacqueline Carey and will read anything she writes no matter the genre or subject, but I do believe she is in her element whenever she tackles epic fantasy because the format lends itself well to her style. Hence, I was so excited when I found out about Starless. Carey is a master worldbuilder who has also written some of my favorite characters of all time, and I feel that opportunities like these are when she can really let loose and show off the full scope of her incredible talent.
Steeped in rich history and mythology, the world was Starless was a delight to discover and experience. The book’s title refers to the skies above Zarkhoum, which are completely devoid of celestial bodies save for the sun, Zar, and his three companion moons. They were the parents of the many stars whose light used to fill the night skies, until the children grew rebellious, causing Zar to cast them all down to the earth, where their punishment bound them in exile forever more. But while they could not return to the heavens, the stars lived among mortals as gods, and some of them even took to the task of protecting the land and its inhabitants. Pahrkun the Scouring Wind was one such god. Deep in the desert, there lives a brotherhood of warrior-priests who dedicate themselves to his service, and it is here that we find our protagonist, Khai.
There is much more to Khai than meets the eye, however. On the rare occasion that a member of Zarkhoum’s royal family is born during an eclipse, it is said that the child’s shadow, or soul’s twin, is also born at the same time. Thus, all babies born during the eclipse are gathered for a test to find the one destined to be the new royal child’s protector, which is how, when the Princess Zariya was born, the infant Khai was identified as her shadow. But being chosen by their god also meant that Khai was entrusted to the Brotherhood of Pahrkun to raise and train as a warrior—and there was just one major complication. While the solution ultimately presented itself in the form of an age-old desert tradition, it meant that Khai had to grow up without knowing an important truth.
Split into several parts, the story first begins in the desert, where readers get to catch a glimpse of Khai’s early years growing up within the Brotherhood. Hands down, I think this was my favorite part of the book. I’ve always had a fondness for fantasy stories that involve a training school component of some sort, and Carey has once again managed to come up with a very imaginative scenario. This will probably come as no surprise, but one of my favorite books ever, her novel Kushiel’s Dart, also started in a similar manner, following a protagonist who comes of age as an apprentice training for their life’s calling.
In the case of Starless, Khai trains in preparation to become Princess Zariya’s shadow and future bodyguard. It’s also interesting to note how the Brotherhood of Pahrkun gains some of its members. Any man convicted of a crime deserving of execution can instead choose to be judged by the Trial of Pahrkun, which involves fighting three of the Brotherhood’s members in the Hall of Proving. If the supplicant can best them all, his sins are wiped away, and he joins the Brotherhood, enriching their ranks with his new skills and knowledge. This was how Khai ended up with some of the best and most interesting mentors, including Brother Merik, Brother Saan, and of course, the unforgettable Brother Yarit. Without a doubt, the characters were the key element that made this opening section of the book stand out. I loved the different personalities and the fascinating interactions between all of them.
The second part of the book opens up the world a bit more, introducing readers to the court of the royal family. Khai also finally gets to meet Princess Zariya for the first time, making a shift from a monastery full of men to close quarters dominated by women. Without revealing too much, I thought gender roles were explored very well in these chapters. As an issue, gender is important in this novel, though the author handles the topic with such subtlety and finesse, it simply integrates itself seamlessly into the story’s larger themes. As always, Carey’s emphasis is on character development and backstory, so that a character’s identity choices end up coming across as natural and as much a part of them as any of their other thoughts, actions, and emotions.
Then, the story shifts gears almost completely in the final part of the book, throwing readers headfirst into a more traditional fantasy quest narrative which puts more emphasis on action and adventure. Khai and Zariya find themselves joining up with a ragtag crew of “prophecy seekers”, embarking on a swashbuckling journey on the high seas to prevent the fallen god Miasmus from rising again. Even though I enjoyed these ocean-bound sections just slightly less than the desert chapters at the beginning, I have to say the overall energy found here was very addictive. I loved getting to travel with our characters to all these exciting new places, encountering fantastical creatures and meeting interesting people. There’s also the easy friendships among this diverse cast, creating a lively atmosphere that made this book just plain fun to read.
The truth is, I hadn’t wanted to hype myself too much for Starless. Despite Jacqueline Carey’s return to the epic fantasy doorstopper genre, somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it would be foolish and a little unfair to compare it to her past work, or to expect this book to sweep me completely off my feet like Kushiel’s Dart. But damn, after finishing this one, I gotta say—it sure came wickedly close. This is one breathtakingly rich and evocative novel. Even more impressive is that Carey was able to pull off this powerful tale in one single volume. I maintain that she is one of the fantasy genre’s most brilliant and precious talents, and a book like Starless only strengthens that belief.