By Jacob P. Torres
Find my spoiler-free review of Starless by Jacqueline Carey below.
Cover Description: “Jacqueline Carey is back with an amazing adventure not seen since her New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series. Lush and sensual, Starless introduces us to an epic world where exiled gods live among us, and a hero whose journey will resonate long after the last page is turned.
I was nine years old the first time I tried to kill a man…
Destined from birth to serve as protector of the princess Zariya, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a warrior sect in the deep desert; yet there is one profound truth that has been withheld from him.
In the court of the Sun-Blessed, Khai must learn to navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity…but in the far reaches of the western seas, the dark god Miasmus is rising, intent on nothing less than wholesale destruction.
If Khai is to keep his soul’s twin Zariya alive, their only hope lies with an unlikely crew of prophecy-seekers on a journey that will take them farther beneath the starless skies than anyone can imagine.”
What is the book about?
Love, magic, old gods, prophecies, far-off kingdoms, adventure, this book hits pretty much all of the staples of modern fantasy. The book focus on our one protagonist, Khai, Shadow to the Sun-Blessed princess Zariya who is from a family of near immortals ruling one of the more important kingdoms in this setting.
The Shadow/Sun-Blessed thing really just means the Zariya is special cause she was born on an eclipse, and Khai was special because he was born on at the same time and then literally anointed by a god to be Zariya’s soul-twin. I say literally cause the gods are very real in this book, they used to be all the stars in the sky, but then they got into a fight with their Dad the sun and he kicked all of them down. So they walk around on earth like terrifying supernatural hobos.
The book is kind of divided into three rough thirds (but not really the divisions the book itself sets) that are fairly different in feel and tone. The first third covers Khai’s training in the desert, learning to kick all kinds of ass before the age of 10. Learning what his destiny is a Shadow and how to use that power and wrestling with his identity. The second third is meeting Zariya and all the court politics of a royal family that has a bunch of near immortals politi-bitching at each other for decades and decades. The last third is adventure! New places and lands, action, action, action and the conclusion of the prophecy.
What Did I Like About the Book?
This book does a lot of things exceptionally well. The worldbuilding is exceptional and expansive. I think we’re introduced to something like six or seven totally unique cultures throughout the course of the book and each one feels genuine and logical for how humanity would adapt around a bunch of gods just walking about.
The magic we see in this world also feels grounded and believable. There’s not a lot of it running around and what is around is potent but subtle. Khai can channel wind, but only in a way that makes him faster and more observant as a fighter. We’re still talking a 16-year-old taking on dozens of opponents so clearly magic, but not so much with the fireballs and the wizard staffs.
The big bad and the general plot of the book were great. I can’t go into a lot of detail without spoiling stuff but it was deftly handled and even if it didn’t feel unique as big bads go it felt fun and appropriate to the setting.
I loved most our two protaganists. Khai gets my favorite character but our two leads are a trans-man and a princess that’s disabled, she can’t walk without crutches and extreme difficulty. Both characters are nuanced, complicated, and feel very real.
Who was my Favorite Character?
Khai was really my only choice here. He steals the show from page one to the end. Khai was designated female at birth but was raised as a male most of his life. He only found out that was raised as a man about midway into the first third of the book. It’s a revelation that shocks him to the core and becomes an ongoing struggle for most of the remaining book. He identifies as a male, was trained to do things that in the culture he was raised in and in Zariya’s culture that women are not allowed to do and aspires to be like the male role-models in his life. Narratively he is not identified as trans there is a word that Carey made up for women raised as males for families that have no male heirs in the book, so Khai might not fit the traditional definition of a trans-man but that’s effectively what he is. He does have a few moments in book where he dresses according to his designated gender but there short and fleeting and for the most part they don’t seem important to the character. But beyond this, he is a great character. Earnest and naïve in the way only those raised by a sect of desert warrior monks can be, he brings energy and fun to most of his scenes.
What Did I Not Like?
Only two big things stuck out at me in this book, and while they bothered me they still didn’t detract too much from the story. First, the middle third, there’s a lot of politics and political mystery and it all seems very stretched thin. If it didn’t need to be there to explain how we go from the first third to the last third I’d say cut most of it. It almost even feels like the third of the book that Carey herself liked the least.
Second the magical soul-bond thing. God. No. It’s star-crossed lovers times a thousand and it’s totally unnecessary. With or without it Khai still could’ve been raised from birth to serve a Princess, met said princess, forged a really strong bond with her, then done adventures and saved the day. It’s an obnoxious literary shorthand for skipping building a meaningful relationship from your protagonist by having them lock eyes, hear fireworks in their soul, and then instantly know that this person is there destined whatever. It’s tedious, overdone and just boring. Carey could’ve cut most of the politics from the middle third and made that part about Khai and Zariya building a friendship. Instead we go from strangers to BFFs faster than an American can eat a Big Mac.
I’m giving this 4.5 out of 5 cups of tea. Carey puts a lot into this book, other authors or storytellers might’ve made a trilogy of stories out of what was in this one book. Exceptional worldbuilding and lovable and meaningful protagonists fill a fun and adventurous story with very little that pulled me out of the narrative. Carey does use a hated “destined soul-connection” trope that I despise, but it thankfully wasn’t overplayed in this story and I was mostly able to ignore it. If you want the kind of sweeping adventure of great fantasy but don’t have the time to read a ten-book series, Starless by Jacqueline Carey is definitely for you.
|Final Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 cups of tea. Exceptional worldbuilding and lovable and meaningful protagonists fill a fun and adventurous story with very little that pulled me out of the narrative.|
|+ Protagonists were a trans-man and a disabled woman, both were handled deftly and crafted genuine, relatable characters.||– Carey used a literary shortcut I hate to skip past spending time developing a meaningful friendship between the protagonists.|
|+ There were a lot of characters in the book and they all participated in the story in meaningful ways and came off well-described at least, if not fully formed.||– The royal family scheming and politicking seemed thin and light, almost as if it was the part of the story Carey was least invested in.|
|+ Exceptional worldbuilding painted a vast, imaginative world with a myriad of thoughtful cultures, customs, and societal roles.||– The big bad felt like the least original aspect of an otherwise very original world and story.|