I wanted my first review of 2017 to be something good and it seemed like a book with lady protagonists who love ladies would make a great start to the year. I was so highly anticipating this book that I couldn’t wait to buy it in paperback. Yes, I actually bought a hardcover book, the world is obviously ending.
Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds: marriage to a prince of a neighbouring kingdom. Her marriage will seal the alliance between the kingdom of Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from hostile nations. However, Denna has a secret: she has an affinity for fire, a secret that could compromise her marriage, since magic is strictly forbidden in Mynaria. Arriving at court and trying her best to fit in and hide her magical abilities, she finds herself faced with the near impossible task of learning to ride Mynaria’s warhorses, under the instruction of the prickly, unconventional Princess Amaranthine. When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, however, Denna and Mare team up to find the people responsible, before Mynaria is damaged beyond recovery.
I wouldn’t say the characters in Of Fire and Stars are incredibly deep and complex, for the most part they fit into their designated boxes: Mare is the tomboy to Denna’s girly girl, Nils is Mare’s best friend/ex lover and partner in crime, Thandi, Mare’s brother and Denna’s betrothed, seems like a nice guy, if a little self-absorbed, Casmiel, the king’s brother, is a decent fellow who is one of the few people who respects Mare as a person (instead of criticizing her for not wanting to marry or acting unconventionally). Lady Hilara is a typical conniving politician, and Ellaeni is one of Denna’s only friends at court. However, Denna and Mare both subvert their expected roles in different ways. Denna is intelligent, able to determine the precise trajectory of an arrow by examining the area, and Mare’s reckless trips outside the castle frequently land her in hot water. Denna might be stuck in an undesirable situation, but even though she might lack Mare’s skill with the bow, she’s far from helpless. I also loved that the book focused on relationships between women instead of girlhate. There is a flock of courtiers that follow Denna everywhere and exasperate her, but there’s no “mean girls” squad devoted to ruining the protagonist’s life. Denna has wonderful relationships with other women, particularly her sister, although her relationship with her mother is somewhat strained, it’s not malicious. I love the way Denna looks at Mare and says “I’m going to befriend this girl,” and I love the way Mare goes from thinking Denna is hopeless at everything to realizing “Oh my gods, I like this girl.”
Another aspect I really liked was the casual way same-sex relationships are talked about in the setting. Denna casually mentions two men dancing together at a ball and talks about how her first crush decided he liked other boys better. Havemont also has no problem with queens running the country, although Mynaria’s king believes that the throne should pass from father to son (hence why Thandi is in line to rule instead of Mare, who is older). The neighbouring nation of Zumorda is also ruled by a woman.
If I had any complaints, it would be that the book is pretty slow-paced. Mare and Denna’s relationship is the slowest of slow burns (actually understandable, given the circumstances) and much of the book is set in the castle and the nearby city in the days leading up to Denna’s wedding. Much of the page time is spent talking about horses. If you love horses, you’ll love this book. If you don’t care about horses, you’ll probably be bored. I am also very sad that this is apparently a stand-alone book. I demand an epic six book series like all the ones with straight couples that I’ve read over the years. I also found the mystery was sort of meh, especially since they spend a lot of time talking about it but not investigating it thoroughly. The world-building is sparse, or perhaps minimalist would be a better word; there are different gods but they don’t have names, just an association with an element: fire god, wind god, etc. I am certainly a fan of complex religions and magic systems (to a point where magic is concerned) but I didn’t feel like the setting really needed a complicated magic system and for me it was easy to accept that magic simply exists in the world.
In terms of representation, Mare and Denna are both bisexual (near as I can tell), Ellaeni has a girlfriend, and there are some small mentions of same-sex relationships. One thing I found disappointing was that Hilara, the only explicit black character, is disliked by pretty much everyone, although she is recognized as a powerful politician and Denna even asks her advice with building connections at court. There may have been more characters of colour that I didn’t catch. In short, yes, it has a relationship between two princesses as the central relationship, but I would have liked to see more.
In terms of potential triggers, there is a scene where Thandi takes Denna to a secluded place and kisses her (she tries to reciprocate but fails because she isn’t in love with him) his dialogue (and Mare’s comment about how he takes girls down there to make out with them) is a bit creepy. There is a sex scene but it’s a tasteful fade to black sort of scene (which is typical for YA stuff).
In short, I really liked this book despite its slow pace, uncomplicated characters, and central mystery that was just kind of okay. If you want a sweet slow burn fantasy about princesses loving other princesses and princesses who love horses with a dash of magic, Of Fire and Stars should be right up your alley.