Review: Starless by Jacqueline Carey

This will be my last review before I move to a new home this week, so it seems appropriate that my last review in this house (where I have lived for at least 30 years) is a book by one of my favourite authors.

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In the realm of the Sun-Blessed, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a brotherhood of warriors in the deep desert, all for the purpose of serving as protector to Princess Zariya as her shadow. A truth has been kept from him, however, Khai is bhazim, an “honorary boy”, born a girl, but raised as a boy. In the Court of the Sun-Blessed, whose royal house does not age, Khai must navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity, but in the west, the dark god Miasmus is rising, and Khai, Zariya, and an unlikely band of prophecy hunters might be the only ones capable of stopping him.

I thought about how to describe this book and it’s difficult to talk about it without sounding dismissive. I suspect the story will sound familiar to anyone who has even a passing interest in the genre: you follow a protagonist as they come of age, then it is revealed that they have a Special Destiny, there’s even a Prophecy telling them about their Special Destiny, the only thing is how do they get from where they are to a point where they can fulfill their destiny? Therein lies the rest of the story. It’s a story that’s so familiar it’s become cliche, but it’s being written by Jacqueline Carey and I trust her (even if I hated the Agent of Hel books). In Carey’s hands, this typical story becomes an exploration of identity, of destiny and fate, and of found family, it’s as much about those things as it is about deities who walk the earth and near immortal royalty.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was so engrossed in this novel that I read it over the weekend, only stopping to eat and sleep. It seems like it’s been a long time since I was so captivated by a cast of characters that I couldn’t wait to get back to the book because I had to know what happens next. I fell in love with the characters and the world, at first the world of the novel feels small, but as Khai grows, the world grows too. It’s a shame that one book can only explore so many cultures in depth. The cultures of Starless run the gamut from matriarchal, monarchist, fiercely egalitarian, warlike where leaders are chosen through trial by combat, etc. The deities also (fittingly) leave an impression. They are alien and strange: from a pillar of fire with skeletal limbs, to a many-armed construct-like entity, but also familiar in that they reflect their domains or spheres of influence.  They remind me of the deities in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, but not quite as esoteric.

Before I talk about the parts of the book that bothered me, I want to talk about some positive representation in the novel. Khai, the narrator of the tale, is nonbinary. The majority of characters are characters of colour. Zarkhoum, the setting for most of the book, is pretty obviously inspired by the Middle East (I’m guessing Iraq). Many other cultures are mentioned that don’t appear to or have analogues that I recognize. Princess Zariya is disabled, in the hands of a lesser writer, her disability might be conveniently forgotten until she needs to be rescued in the final battle or something, or else she would be treated like a burden until she was miraculously “cured”. This doesn’t happen in Starless. While Zariya’s disability presents certain challenges, she finds ways to assert her independence and work around her limitations.

I think my main problem with this book is how it handles Khai’s experience of being nonbinary in a very binarist culture where gender roles are strictly defined and the sexes are segregated (especially in the cities). To be clear, Khai was assigned female at birth, but raised as a boy (what his culture refers to as bhazim), and not told about this by his teachers until he reaches puberty. He starts questioning how he can be a warrior in a girl’s body. His inner conflict is only exacerbated when he arrives at the Court of the Sun-Blessed and has to endure being examined (since only eunuchs can attend the women for obvious reasons) and exposed to many naked women in the baths (which makes him very, very anxious). Even though scenes like these are part of his struggle with his identity, I can’t help but feel that many trans people would find this invasive “genital check” cringey at best and triggering at worst. I should also note that of the times he presents as feminine, twice it’s at the insistence of others, and once as a disguise. I’m not going to start policing this fictional character’s gender, but at times it felt like Khai was less accepting of his identity than I would have liked. He does also make some homophobic remarks, although it comes across as more of a product of his culture and other cultures have different opinions on sex and gender (including a race who can change sex at will). There’s also an important side Zarkhoumi character who is bisexual.

Starless is conventional. It’s a story you’ve heard before, but it’s a story told well, and sometimes that’s enough. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for something new and original, but if you want something that feels familiar and doesn’t require committing to a series, I recommend Starless.

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