YA Weekend: Sky Without Stars by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell
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 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of System Divine
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Length: 592 pages
These days, more and more YA authors are turning to popular and beloved stories to create their own worlds or to put their own spin on familiar ideas. In fact, it’s become so ubiquitous that it’s no surprise that a significant portion of my YA shelf is made up of retellings. With fairy tales and classic lit being the most common sources of inspiration, I’m at the point where yet another Beauty and the Beast or Shakespearean retelling would hardly make me bat an eye, though every once in a while something will cross my path that still manages to spark curiosity and makes me sit up a bit straighter.
Sky Without Stars by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell was one of these books. When I first heard that it was modeled after Les Misérables, I was immediately intrigued. Leaving aside the fact it’s not every day you come across a Les Mis retelling, such an undertaking would also be incredibly ambitious and—as I would imagine—extremely difficult. But if the authors can pull it off? Well, then this could be a brilliant and awesome novel indeed.
The first installment of a sci-fi series called System Divine, named after the far-flung star system in which this story takes place, Sky Without Stars introduces readers to a futuristic society divided in a class system reminiscent of the three estates hierarchy used in pre-Revolutionary France. Back in the time when the First World fell, the planet of Laterre meant hope for all survivors of the Last Days. Hundreds of years later, however, it has become a place where the rulers and nobility of the First and Second Estates reign supreme, while the Third Estate—the poor common class—are left to starve in the streets.
We mainly follow three key protagonists who come from very different backgrounds, though their destinies will be forever entwined and changed by this story’s events. First, we have Chatine, a young thief whose only goal in life is to scrape together enough money to buy her way off Laterre and escape the cruel regime. Next, we have Marcellus, a promising young officer whose grandfather is also a powerful general of the Second Estate, or the class of enforcers who serve the planet’s rulers by keeping the masses of the Third Estate in line. And finally, we have Alouette, an acolyte of a secret order sworn to protect the written history of the planet, hidden in the last surviving library underground.
The three of them are brought together when, in desperate need of more funds, Chatine is forced to take on an assignment to spy on Marcellus, doing it under the guise of her male alter ego, Théo. Because his father was a notorious traitor imprisoned for his crimes years ago, Marcellus is believed by his grandfather to be ripe for recruitment by the resistance group Vangarde, prompting the need for his surveillance. Meanwhile, curious about life on the surface, Alouette sneaks out from her underground refuge for a quick peek, only to become embroiled in world of chaos and rebellion as news of a brazen attack against the First Estate ripples across the whole of Laterre.
For a YA novel, Sky Without Stars is a massive clunker of a book, as I would expect any retelling of a Victory Hugo classic would be. While I wouldn’t say each and every one of its nearly 600 pages were enthralling or hard to put down, for the most part I think the authors should be commended for doing a great job with the concept, especially given the restrictions they were working with and the fact that they injected a lot of their own ideas. This made for some truly fascinating world-building, the sci-fi setting with its advanced tech contrasting nicely with the historical events the story is based on—namely the events leading up to and surrounding the June Rebellion, the anti-monarchist uprising that inspired Les Misérables. Issues like the wealth disparity between classes and the overall poor living conditions of the Third Estate played well into the novel’s dystopian themes of injustice and revolution, and the world itself is strongly influenced by French culture and language.
Despite the length of the novel, I also managed to get through it rather quickly, thanks to the rock-solid writing and smooth pacing. I do think that most of the book’s readability can be attributed to the use of multiple POVs, which were some of most balanced I have ever seen in that I didn’t think any of the characters were over or underrepresented. When you’re dealing with a huge tome like this, and an author collaboration to boot, so many things could have gone wrong with regards to character development, yet I felt Chatine, Marcellus, and Alouette’s roles were all equally well written and explored. This resulted in surprisingly few lulls in the narrative, because I genuinely found them all interesting to read about.
Needless to say, fans of retellings will eat this one right up, but I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this novel to readers of epic fantasy or anyone who enjoys a rich and textured sense of vastness to go with their stories of layered adventure and intrigue. Considering the many ways this Les Misérables retelling could have strayed from its intended course or blown up in all our faces, Sky Without Stars actually turned out to a surprisingly well-rounded and entertaining read. I will be sure to pick up the next volume.