Quick review for Audrey Coulhurst’s Of Fire and Stars. (Illustration by the always awesome Nate Hallinan.) Smart, brave heroines: check. Girl-love: check. Murder-mystery that threatens to spark a war: check. I’ll try to keep from being too spoiler-y, but I realize my track record for that isn’t the best.
It was Nate’s charming illustration that first drew my attention to Fire and Stars. It’s how I ended up buying it for my Kindle on the release date and reading it over the next two afternoons. On the surface, Stars is about two smart princesses trying to solve a murder-mystery in order to prevent a war. And if that isn’t cool enough, there’s also a lot going on beneath the surface: politics, arcane-phobia, and fear-mongering that our heroines have to contend with.
Princess Mare is kind of that tomboyish-horsewoman (cowgirl-ish?) archetype, more interested in riding or having a few drinks with the guards than in courtly pursuits. She loves riding more than anything and knows all the secret ways in and out of the palace. Though the other characters accept Mare for the way she is, few of them really respect her or acknowledge her skills and smarts. The other members of the court look down on her, convinced that she’s frivolous and never going to find a proper marriage with her attitude—and, sadly, Mare worries that they’re right and undervalues herself because of it.
Princess Denna is more the bookish type and is in an arranged engagement to Mare’s useless tosser of a younger brother. D is one of these unfortunate princesses who has been in a political engagement since she was a baby, and her life has been training for her future marriage. Additionally, Denna is a magic user trying to keep her powers hidden. Though magic isn’t universally reviled in the story, the kingdom she’s marrying into views magic users as dangerous heretics. Denna’s greatest fear is failing at both.
When a nobleman close to both heroines is murdered, Princess Denna and Princess Mare learn to respect each other’s abilities and work together to solve the murder and save their kingdom from a needless war. Naturally, they’re going to fall in love. (Not a spoiler so much as an incentive.) Yes, I recognize there are a number of popular tropes at work within the characters and story, but I felt like they were smartly applied in ways that kept the story charming and engaging.
I think what I liked best about the story was Audrey’s effective use of the trope where a street-smart character and a book-smart character discover that they work really well together. I felt that it was applied effectively and consistently throughout the story, and that both princesses had excellent opportunities to demonstrate their smarts and skills. Additionally, it means a lot to me that both see value in the other’s knowledge/skill set. Mare immediately sees the usefulness of Denna’s understanding of arrow trajectories, research smarts, and historical knowledge. Meanwhile, Denna respects and admires Mare’s courage and worldliness and even goes out of her way to learn from the older princess. Plus never do they compete or try to show off to the other or to anyone else. It’s a charming dynamic that I feel is woefully underused in fiction in general.
I liked as well that being gay or bi was treated as something normal in the novel’s world. Throughout there are references to men dancing with men, noblewomen having flings with serving women, and same-sex marriage as a recognized union. Princess Mare is openly bi and admits to trysts with men and women before meeting Denna. I appreciate that the societal pressures that keep our heroines from admitting their feelings for each other center around Denna’s arranged engagement to Mare’s brother.
Thus I love how in the end, it’s our princesses’ feelings for each other that helps each accept themselves, despite the societal pressures placed upon them. Denna’s love and acknowledgement helps Mare accept herself and acknowledge her own identity and value as a person. Mare’s love and acceptance shows Denna that her magic isn’t something to be afraid or ashamed of, and that there’s more to life than being the perfect wife and princess. Though the murder-mystery brings them together and gives them a chance to display their skills, it’s their growing affection and acknowledgement of the other’s wisdom and bravery that helps each learn to love and acknowledge themselves. It’s an uplifting dynamic that I’d love to see more often in fiction.
If I had one minor beef with Of Fire and Stars, it was an overuse of that trope where most of the adult main characters are either stubborn and ineffectual or secretly villains. In fact, about the only adult character who takes both princesses seriously is the one whose murder sparks the main conflict. And it’s not so much that I felt the trope was badly applied (I mean, I get that Denna is the new girl who doesn’t know the workings of the court, and everyone is used to not taking Mare seriously). I just felt that it was over-applied. I felt that too many of the authority figures were overly resistant to the the idea that the evidence was problematic. It was to the point that I was half-convinced that the murder was a conspiracy and all of the grown-ups were in on the assassination.
Wow, so much for a ‘quick’ review. Lots to say, apparently. On the whole, I loved the story and definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA fantasy or wlw romances. It’s smart and uplifting, and I’d love to see more tales like it. Thanks for reading and take care, folks!