AUTHOR: Lucy Hounsom
RELEASED: August 2017; Tor
KEY INFO: high fantasy, female protag, magic, blind character
CONTENT NOTICES: queer coded villain, ‘curing’ blind character via magic, sexual violence against women
I got a free copy of Starborn by Lucy Hounsom in my goody bag from Nine Worlds 2017 and was pleasantly surprised by this book. Usually, I’m not a huge fan of fantasy novels as I tend to find them too Tolkienesque for my liking with writing that can be overly complicated, dry and long-winded. But Starborn is not like this at all. Lucy Hounsom manages to write in such a way which is wholly immersive without being alienating for the reader, and I found myself completely engaged from the very first chapter.
Following the main character, Kyndra who comes from the small village of Brenwym, provides a great easing into the mystical world of Mariar as we follow Kyndra as she leaves her village for the first time. Sometimes fantasy novels can throw you in at the deep end with lots of complicated descriptions, characters, and laws but the author manages to avoid this altogether through the clever use of Kyndra as our guide. We discover as Kyndra discovers, we grow as Kyndra grows. We get to meet some characters that I absolutely loved, particularly Wielders Bregenne and Nediah, outcast Kait, and novice Irilin.
There’s a really good balance of combat with descriptions, lore, and history which I found enjoyable. In fantasy settings, too much combat bores me to tears but so does too much of the latter! Yet once again, Hounsom strikes a controlled balance between these. We also get a lovely map at the beginning which I always love as I get to follow the characters moving throughout the world, whilst using my imagination to ponder about all the places we don’t get to see in Mariar. And there’s a lot of places to enjoy from the cozy tavern run by her mother, airships travel along the ‘Great Chain’, and the secret world of Naris which is hidden to all other than those who hold power fueled by the sun and the moon.
Whilst I did massively enjoy Starborn, like all good books there are always one or two things you find which you didn’t like so much. At 500 pages, Starborn can get a little bit lengthy towards the end. I didn’t feel this at all until the final, final battle right at the end of the book but found myself getting a little bit irritated with some of the conversations between the main parties. There are also a few bizarre character developments that seem quite out of character, but I can overlook those as it happens sometimes.
Like others have mentioned, however, there were also a few additional things relating to representation that disappointed me particularly those concerning threats of sexual violence against female characters, queer coded villains, and disabled characters.
In the first instance, there are two occasions concerning two different female characters who are subjected to uncomfortable male advances. I felt it was handled much better when it happens to Bregenne, who blasts the harasser with magic and there are scenes where it is discussed with Nediah than it was with Kyndra, who is sexually threatened by a male novice but later becomes friends with said novice and it is never raised again. I felt quite surprised at the time when Kyndra becomes friends with this guy later on, more so when it is never openly discussed by the friends.
In the second instance, the main villain is quite substantially queer coded and is not a nice person AT ALL. The only other queer coded character is another man, initially, a novice is toyed with by the former villain and becomes his puppet through the use of sexual advancements. Whilst there isn’t anything innately wrong with queer coded villains, it becomes a bit of a problem when the only queer characters in the novel are villains and it would have been great to have a queer protagonist to counter-balance this.
Lastly, I feel quite torn in regards to the disability representation as I feel there are both some good and bad aspects to disabled characters in the book. As a result of an accident, one character becomes disabled in a way where he can no longer look after himself and is only ever later described as screaming. I won’t go into it here as I’m not sure how I feel about that particular character, but want to briefly touch on the character of Bregenne who is predominantly blind, except for at night when she can use her Lunar powers to see. I really loved having a blind character in this series and enjoyed seeing someone with a disability in a fantasy setting, especially in a way which interacted with their disability rather than erased it. However, the author makes a decision right at the end of the book about Bregenne’s blindness which actually quite upset me in which Nediah *heals* Bregenne’s sight without her consent and in a way which is clearly distressing to Bregenne. Nediah then leaves to go on a journey with Kyndra, leaving Bregenne alone and without support to deal with this traumatic event. I really feel as though this shouldn’t have been done. It was a monumental, out of character, decision which was not given adequate focus and rushed. It would have made a big difference if this had been a running theme throughout the book and handled more sensitively, but I was really shocked at how brief this event was (2 pages at the end of the book) and felt quite troubled reading it.
All in all, despite some of these problems I did really enjoy the book and rated it 4 stars on Goodreads. I liked the world, the characters, the plot and the writing, and am super excited to read the sequel. Starborn ends on an intriguing note that leaves the world open for even more exploration, interesting character development and a whole bunch of other plot twists that I cannot even fathom.