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.
Let your mind be like the eye of the hawk…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.
First off, this was an interesting reading experience because I was simultaneously rereading another of Carey’s books, Kushiel’s Dart, as part of a read along project for the reddit r/fantasy community (details here). Because of that, I definitely picked up on some common threads between that book and Starless, even though they’re both very different books. Still, this review is about Starless, so that’s what I’ll focus on.
Carey’s prose is lush and beautiful, as always, and it serves to breathe life into this new world. The book is divided into three parts, and the first section focuses on our main character, Khai, and his days spent growing up in the desert at the Fortress of the Winds, training to be a warrior. Khai is also, that trope of tropes, a chosen one. From birth his life has been fated to be twinned to the soul of the Princess Zariya. But we follow Khai through his desert training for a long time up until he’s sent to the court to do his duty as Shadow at the age of sixteen. We really get to know Khai as a character here, and I have to say, I really love everything about him. He’s not a precocious child, nor given to whimsy. A bit on the serious side, Khai is loyal and a fierce warrior with a natural curiosity about the world outside of the Fortress of the Winds.
One of my favorite characters in the entire book is featured in the first act, Brother Yarit. He comes from the city, a condemned man, a thief, sentenced to walk the Trail of Pahrkun and face the warriors of the Brotherhood, he’ll be forgiven his sins if he survives and be admitted into the Brotherhood himself. Yarit is sly, prone to deception, and has a foul mouth. He’s a con-man. And yet, somehow, he becomes a part of the brotherhood and a mentor to Khai. He admits time and time again that this is not the life he would have chosen, and that he’s not suited to it, and yet it seems to be his destiny. Destiny, fate, these are things that will keep coming up throughout the story with different characters. Anyway, I just loved Yarit, because everyone at the brotherhood is so very serious all of the time and Yarit is the opposite of that so it made for a fun contrast.
In the second act we follow Khai to the court to meet Princess Zariya where he’s to serve as her shadow for the rest of his days. The court of the Ageless is filled with endless intrigues, as one might expect of a court consisting of one king with many wives and children from each, especially since so many of them are so long lived and the king shows no signs of stepping down any time soon. You have the regular petty squabbles among the wives and their kids while they jockey for power. But doing it all with smiles on their faces. It’s a game of sorts and Khai, inexperienced in intrigue, is wary of it all. His one light is Princess Zariya. She’s beautiful and full of hope despite an illness as a child that left her with little use of her legs. She’s not naive, having grown up in the palace with all of its intrigues she could never be naive, and yet she still feels innocent in a lot of ways, unspoiled by all the rotten apples around her she may be the one hold out in the entire barrel. I never truly connected with her character as a reader, to be quite honest, but I can’t say there’s anything wrong with the way she’s written. She’s just…nice.
Here we get to explore the city and the world is expanded beyond the desert and the court. We see how conditions are not great for all of the people and how those in the Palace of the Ageless are intentionally blind to it all, only concerned with their going’s on at court. Even when it’s obvious that they have offended their god, and that’s why the ramanthus seeds that sustain their long lives have not been able to be harvested, they don’t change their ways. They feel like they’re on the verge of being a bygone era–either they’ll never change and the seeds will run out and their lives will end sooner rather than later, or they change. Of course not everyone is terrible–you have Princess Fazarah, a reformist for the people, and Zariya’s brother Prince Dozaren, who you don’t really know what to make of. Is he good or bad? Either way, he’s intriguing. And definitely plotting.
Once the story gets to the third act things change yet again.
In the third act we explore much more of the world. This is probably the most ambitious world-building I’ve seen from Carey. Yes, you can see some influences here and there, but things get weird. Not everyone is human, and some societies are not even humanoid. And you can see the way that societies and cultures of places were built up around the various gods (the fallen stars) that dwelt there. Of course the city of trade’s god is the god of shrewdness. And of course the god of fear lives on an island where everything is trying to kill you. All of these were interesting places to explore, and fun, if a little bit on the nose.
Did any of you guys ever see that movie Lady in the Water? Because for some reason, this third act reminds me a lot of Lady in the Water. You’ve got the prophecy. And someone comes and says ‘hey, you’re X and X from the Prophecy! And this is X and X and other X and we know it’s them because it’s obvious’. And the characters figure out their preordained roles and play them to the T. I mean, the Scattered Prophecy may be scattered but that’s the only thing puzzling about it. Everything seems to just fall into place for our heroes and feels rather obvious. The gods give them the tools they need and they take them, even if they don’t feel important at the time. There’s a lot of ‘I don’t know why I’m supposed to do this but I know I’m supposed to do this so I’m doing it’ and then you find out ‘oh hey, that worked out well, didn’t it’. It feels like, even though they had to work hard and there were sacrifices along the way, that it would always work out for them because it was supposed to. And because of that, it didn’t allow me to become as emotionally invested as I would have liked. This is a difficult thing to describe, but it’s like when you have a character that dies and then they’re resurrected, and this happens more then once in a story…then that death is just meaningless and the next time someone in the story dies you’re not even sad because they’ll just come back again. That specific example doesn’t apply here, but just using it as an analogy.
But then Carey keeps coming back to her characters trying to see how things will fall out. ‘If this, than this, than this’ chain of events type of thinking. (This, by the way, is one of the common threads from Kushiel’s Dart as Phedre often has this kind of thinking when looking back with hindsight.) A butterfly flaps it’s wings and everything could be different. A million little things had to be lined up just so and people had to be relied upon to act accordingly, or everything could have gone differently. We’re reminded of this because it’s constantly brought up. And yet…I don’t know, I just feel that things went…about as easily as they could have given the circumstances.
And yet….the third act is where everything is finally happening. Action, adventure, romance. Plot. I can’t hate the third act at all, even though it feels like a very beautifully written version of a choose your own adventure where the reader picks all of the most favorable outcomes.
That being said, one of the best things about Starless is that it’s an incredibly optimistic book. The end of the world is coming and our heroes are motley crew of mostly ordinary folk chosen to do an extraordinary thing–save the entire world. But, I got the feeling too, at the end of things, that some of the stuff going on in the background is the real story. Yeah, our heroes did their jobs and now they can retire–the world has been saved. But it’s up to everyone else to make it better, and we see the start of that with Princess Fazarah, Zariya’s elder sister who wants to help the poor and bring reform to society. And maybe that’s the lesson here, because that’s the hard work. Saving the world is easy, making it fair and just for everyone takes work–but it too can be done. 4/5 stars.