Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.
My Summary: Princess Dennaleia has spent most of her life preparing for a future as a queen to Mynaria, married off to Prince Thandilimon for the sake of a political alliance. However, the certainty of her future is unbalanced when she arrives in Mynaria. She has magical powers relating to fire in a kingdom where magic is forbidden, and those powers are breaking out of her control. Instead of falling for Prince Thandilimon, she falls for his sister, Princess Amaranthine. When an assassination brings the threat of war with a nearby kingdom, Denna must work with Mare to figure out how to prevent unnecessary bloodshed.
I’ve been waiting for my signed+personalized copy of this book to arrive for a long time, so when it finally arrived yesterday, I jumped straight to reading it.
Of Fire and Stars is fantasy mixed with romance, political intrigue, and mystery. It’s a balancing act that Audrey Coulthurst pulls off with finesse. Each subplot contributed to the suspense in a meaningful way: the slow-burn, will-they-or-won’t-they attraction and relationship between Denna and Mare; the growing threat of war against and persecution of innocent people, including Denna herself; the desperate hunt for who committed the crime of assassination.
The narrative is told from two perspectives, Denna’s and Mare’s. It’s often considered a cliche, but here it works nicely, creating dramatic irony as the two girls misinterpret each other, find out things the other doesn’t know, and so on. Their personalities and voices are distinct, and in fact this results in them initially not getting along. But eventually, as they become better acquainted with one another, they learn to see the other person’s strengths and admire her for who she is. They also collaborate and use their respective strengths to investigate the truth of the assassination while everyone else follows their preconceived biases.
Slow-burn romances are my favorite. In fact, I suspect I actually enjoy unresolved sexual/romantic tension more than actual sex/romance. It’s super frustrating but also extremely entertaining to watch people dance around the truth of their feelings and attraction to one another. Sure, the buildup makes the climax more satisfying (I don’t mean this in the sexual way, though that is technically a valid interpretation as well), but to be honest, I like the US/RT for itself, and this book is full of it.
Romance aside, the worldbuilding is solid, each kingdom possessing its own customs and history (leading to some culture shock on Denna’s part). The alternate universe has its own religion and associated mythology, which in turn inform the existence, function, and treatment of magic. I was as curious as Denna to learn more about it. As it turns out, magic isn’t just a convenient tool that you can use at your leisure, there are limits and consequences to its use.
One of the things I particularly liked about the worldbuilding was the normalization of same-gender attraction and relationships. In comments and observations, it is shown that these attractions and relationships aren’t out of the ordinary or unacceptable. Mare is bi, and Denna is a lesbian (as far as I can tell; I think the author also said this somewhere), but their relationship is forbidden because Denna is betrothed to Mare’s brother, not because they’re both girls. One of Denna’s friends has a lover who is a woman, but the thing keeping them apart isn’t their gender, it’s their social class.
In terms of issues I had with the book, there were two things. One was that it felt like Denna and Mare were somewhat held up as special for being “not like other girls,” Mare for being athletic and not caring about her appearance, and Denna for being bookish and analytical. Only one of the noblewomen attending to Denna was portrayed as having sense and depth and an interest in more than flirting and gossip and obsequious gestures. Honestly, I’m so over the idea that women can’t be interested in multiple things at once, or that women can’t be intelligent or interesting if they flirt or like fashion. The obsequiousness and frivolity could be attributed to the women’s social status (e.g. being part of the wealthy elite means you don’t have to care that much about work or practical things; being a woman in the elite in a sexist society means your worth is dependent on your ability to secure connections and access to resources for your family), but it still had a low-key whiff of classic misogyny to it.
The other thing I noticed was two cases of subtle transphobia. The first was a line where Denna comments on naughty poems “generally filled with terrifying euphemisms for parts of the male physique.” The gendering of body parts as inherently male perpetuates biological essentialism and is the reason why transmisogyny is so rampant. Because people view certain parts and organs as essentially male, the conclusion is that trans women are actually men. This is why you get a bunch of straight dudes who are afraid that they’re gay for being attracted to trans women, and call trans women liars and “traps.” This is why there are cis lesbians who accuse trans women of being men who are using femininity as a front to “invade” women’s spaces.
The other instance was a thought Mare had about marrying a woman because “‘at least then no one would be able to question the legitimacy of it based on lack of children.’ No matter how vague my life plan was, spending half of it out of the saddle to have a baby definitely wasn’t part of it.” The unspoken assumption here is that two women cannot have children together and that a woman and man automatically can, which is, like the first example, not accounting for the existence of women with penises, or men without them.
In short, while heteronormativity was not an issue in the book, cisnormativity was.
Recommendation: I recommend it with some reservations. It’s not perfect, but it’s an enjoyable read overall.