My Summary: Leelavati has a cursed horoscope that portends death for whomever she marries. Resigned to a fate of never being wed, she spends her time teaching astronomy, having learned much of the science from her father, the renowned Bhaskara Acharya. Then, her childhood friend Rahul Nagarseth, returns, and the two fall for each other. Thus, they find out whether the stars will keep them apart, or whether they can turn the tides of fate.
So, part of the basic premise of this book sounds fairly similar to The Star-Touched Queen, with the cursed horoscope and all, but the execution is vastly different (it was published in 2013, by the way). Whereas The Star-Touched Queen is historical fantasy, Starcursed is regular historical fiction. Instead of magic, we have science. The story is set in 12th century India, with the wars led by Muhammad of Ghor as the backdrop.
Bhaskara Acharya was a real person in history, a famous mathematician and astronomer, and he named one of the four parts of his greatest work after a woman, Leelavati. It’s unknown whether she was a real person, and if so, what her relationship was with Bhaskara Acharya, but in this story, she is imagined as his daughter.
Although some may find it boring, I really enjoyed the incorporation of real historical science into the narrative. (That might be my inner space nerd speaking.) Leela is an admirable young woman, wielding her intellect the way a fantasy heroine might wield spell or sword. She stands up to the misogyny of people who assume that because she is a woman, she cannot be a gifted astronomer. She proves that one woman can outperform a group of men in a competition of calculations.
I liked that Leela’s character explicitly pointed out that there was a time before her own when women-scholars were prevalent, to illustrate that misogyny within a society is not static and unchanging but rather is contextual and dynamic. There was also some commentary on how misogyny is indoctrinated into boys, as she has no issues with her younger male students doubting her competence but runs into skepticism from older boys and men.
The romance between Leela and Rahul is sweet and strong in a quiet kind of way, compared to the typical YA fare. Their romance is built upon their friendship. The two are intellectually compatible, share common interests in astronomy, and Rahul genuinely respects Leela and does not feel threatened by her brilliance or the need to one-up her.
Unfortunately for the two of them, they come from different castes and religions (Leela is a Brahmin and Hindu, Rahul is a Vaishya and Jain). Rahul is also biracial Indian and Chinese in a society where miscegenation isn’t viewed favorably. The two have various obstacles to circumvent, not least of which is Leela’s cursed horoscope.
I recognize the author’s attempt to incorporate Rahul’s Chinese heritage into the story, but it flopped in the execution. At first I thought it would be okay because the Chinese astronomy/astrology references checked out, facts-wise, in the early portion. The other stuff was super questionable though.
One was the anachronistic use of and referral to Chinese language(s). Nobody besides linguists knows what 12th-century Chinese sounds like, so obviously I’m not expecting anyone to actually write a character speaking the language of the time. But everything else was also anachronistic:
- The labeling of things as “Chinese” and the use of “China” makes no sense as the toponym “China” didn’t come into common usage until the 16th century or so. Historically, China was referred to by its dynastic name, in this case it would have been the Song Empire.
- The story also refers to the Chinese language that Rahul speaks as Mandarin. Mandarin did not exist at that time and did not come into existence until late in the history of China, having undergone significant sound changes from the Middle Chinese languages.
- Then, there was the use of “Cantonese” as a descriptor, which is also bizarre because Canton is the name for Guangdong/Guangzhou that came from muddling the Portuguese name Cantão, a name that wasn’t given until a few centuries after the events of the book.
I know this is really nitpicky but I can’t help but notice it because of who I am. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the story, it just bugged me whenever stuff like it popped up.
So aside from the language issues, Rahul’s character knows kung fu and yeah…that’s really stereotypical. It wasn’t his most prominent trait, but it was a Thing. Sigh.
The good part about Rahul’s characterization was that he brings a much more open-minded perspective to the cast of characters, countering the xenophobia of many Indian scholars toward Chinese people, as well as prejudice toward the Turkis people who are not involved in the invasion of India. Overall, the book had threads of criticism against classism, xenophobia, and prejudice, including religious prejudice. I appreciated having those elements in a historical fiction book.
Recommendation: I ragged on the Chinese stuff pretty hard, but I actually liked the book quite a bit for what it was, so I’d still recommend it–with the caveat that you shouldn’t take the Chinese elements as historically accurate.