Review: Of Fire And Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

Published in 2016; 389 pages; ★★★★★

My daily life remained a rehearsal for the moment I met my betrothed, and my secret seemed like a trivial thing.  I believed that as long as I followed my training, nothing could go wrong.

But some things are stronger than years of lessons.

The draw of fire.

A longing for freedom.

Or a girl on a red horse.

Summary:
Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

(From Goodreads)

Let’s not beat around the bush:  Of Fire And Stars is right up my alley.  Princesses falling in love with each other, horses, elemental magic, a sprinkling of classic worldbuilding tropes, and a dash of sociopolitical commentary – it’s a recipe for a light, enjoyable read that I was sure to love.  Looking back on it with a bit more distance, I can see a few weak spots (most of which could have been negated had the book simply been longer) but overall, this book was so fantastically enjoyable that I choose to give it five stars anyway.

As with most of the books that I gravitate towards, the heart of Of Fire And Stars lies in its characters.  Our leading ladies here are Denna, princess of Havemont, and Mare, princess of Mynaria.  Though they’re vastly different people, fundamentally they struggle with the same thing:  the idea of duty to their kingdom.  Denna embraces it and strives to serve her people and her nation as best she can; Mare rejects it at every turn, but ends up just as defined by her rejection as Denna is by her acceptance.  Their contrasting starting points play out beautifully as their relationship develops, because neither of them has allowed herself to consider a third option – duty to themselves and their own convictions.

Personally, I found both girls to be interesting and rich in character, but I’ve seen quite a few other reviews from people who did not.  I suspect a lot of this has to do with things that weren’t elaborated upon much, but from which I inferred things about their characterization.  For instance, we see several times that Mare is uncomfortable addressing her father and feels ignored and belittled when she tries to participate in affairs of state; this is also combined with the fact that the king of Mynaria is shown to be oddly sexist in a generally egalitarian setting.  To me, this suggests that Mare feels she’s been unappreciated by her family because of her gender, and her sometimes immature reactions are a result of that – likely combined with grief for her dead mother.  But that isn’t textual.  

Similarly, Denna clearly arrives in Mynaria with expectations about what her role as princess and eventually queen will entail… but while we are shown all the things that disappoint her (ie being relegated to social functions instead of involved in political decisions) it’s never made clear what, exactly, she had anticipated.

In both of these cases, there would have been ample opportunity to explore these points of characterization had the book been longer.  At 389 pages, it was a fast read (I finished it in about half a day), but I really don’t think I would have minded another one or two hundred pages in the name of enriching the narrative.  In addition to Mare and Denna, I found myself wishing for more information and insight regarding the secondary characters – especially Thandilimon, Mare’s brother and Denna’s fiance.  His relationships with both girls were key, but we saw very little of him as an individual, and his interactions with the protagonists were not particularly nuanced as a result.

The worldbuilding of the book was also not tremendously fleshed out, but while I would have enjoyed knowing a little more, it still served the story well enough.  The primary international conflict between the kingdoms has to do with a rivalry over a religious site that’s important to two groups of people and, well, for obvious reasons of real-world history, that felt completely plausible to me.  To Coulthurst’s credit, too, she makes a point of showing different viewpoints on the conflict, starting in the very first scene where it’s discussed.  (Again, this is a characterization point I felt could have been elaborated upon at greater length; some reviewers have complained that the adults in this book seemed willfully ignorant, but I feel like there was a lot of evidence that they were, essentially, using the murders in the palace as a catalyst for a conflict they wanted for other reasons.)

The cultural backdrop of the Northern Kingdoms is… refreshing.  Same-sex relationships are open and accepted to the point of barely being commented on; women hold powerful positions in all but one of the national governments we’re shown; the Mynarian monarchy is balanced by a council akin to a presidential cabinet, representing different national interests, on which the monarch has a vote equal to anyone else.  The religion is pantheistic, with gods that seem to fall into elemental categories – not particularly groundbreaking, but interesting enough.  Coulthurst is deliberately ignoring many of the oft-unspoken assumptions of fantasy worldbuilding, and I loved it.  Why should a made up society hold to the same sexism, homophobia, and racism as our own world?  What possible narrative benefit comes of it?  

Now, another writer might have taken the angle that social homophobia would provide more conflict in a book about a pair of star-crossed girls falling in love but… personally, as a queer woman, I’m tired of reading about books where being queer is the source of struggle.  It gets to be a bit of a downer, you know?  And so it was particularly gratifying here that gender was never a factor in Mare and Denna’s relationship – their differing personalities and, later, their social roles and obligations kept them apart, instead of irrational hatred and shame.

It’s not a story about falling love with a girl.  It’s a story about falling in love with this girl.

On the whole, their relationship was beautifully handled.  The growth of it was slow and natural and filled with moments where both of them had to let their assumptions go and re-evaluate the other.  I’ve got lived experience of a friends-to-romance transition, and so that particular, exquisitely painful longing rang true to me – that feeling of wanting something and then denying that want, for fear it could somehow destroy everything.  There’s a particular kind of pleasure in reading something that I could relate to so directly and so deeply.

I finished this book with a strong feeling that there will be a sequel.  Most of the plot threads are resolved, but there are several characters who get more pagetime than seems proportionate to their role here.  Mare and Denna are both positioned for interesting futures; the magic system has only just begun to be explored; and political ramifications of the book’s climax would provide great plot fodder for a follow-up.  (I’d also be interested in a companion novel or short story from Thandilimon’s point of view, actually – it would be informative to get into his head, and he’s at the center of a lot of the political fallout.)

Also, I’m wholly convinced that dragons are real in this setting, and a sequel would be a perfect opportunity to explore that.  Say… Mare venturing to train one?  Just a suggestion.  (Please?)

All in all, I don’t think I could have picked a better first book to read in 2017.  When the only real critique I have is ‘but I wanted it to be longer’, it’s a winner.

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