Book Review – An Accident of Stars

1 Aug

An Accident of Stars

-Foz Meadows

Apathy breeds more evils than defeat. So, you know … keep fighting.

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An Accident of Stars was recommended to me by someone who’d read Schooled In Magic, although the two books are actually quite different. The blurb was enticing enough to get me to download the free sample, then purchase the paperback. Was it worth it? Well, yes and no. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

The publisher did not, it should be noted, do a particularly good job with formatting and publishing this book. A large number of page breaks and scene switches are missing, with the net result that the POV character and even the location seems to switch without warning. I actually found myself having to go back and reread several sections, just so I could be sure about what was going on. This is a point the author needs to address with them before the third book in the series – assuming there is one – comes out. However, I did my best not to take that into account when planning this review.

The book features – but isn’t entirely centred around – a young girl called Saffron, who is not enjoying her time at school. (The description of girls being harassed by boys and schoolteachers unable or unwilling to do anything is entirely accurate.) When she encounters an older woman called Gwen Vere (groan) she is accidentally transported into a whole other world; Gwen is a world-walker and now Saffron is one too. Unable to return her home, at least at once, and standing out like a sore thumb because she looks very different to most of the locals, Saffron finds herself dragged into a political struggle and playing a major role in a rebellion.

Unusually for such a book – and in stark contest to Schooled in Magic – there are two other viewpoint characters who share the stage with Saffron. Gwen blames herself for the selection of the local ruler – which actually suggests she enjoys, or used to enjoy, considerable influence – while Viya is the spoiled consort of the local ruler who runs away, aided by a mysterious figure with links to Gwen. (Coincidence drives the plot a little more than it should, but that doesn’t really hurt.) In some ways, this slows the book down because there are too many infodumps; in others, it hurts because it’s often hard to know precisely what is going on. I spent quite a bit of my time thinking that I’d come into the story halfway.

The book focuses – intensely focuses – on most of the female cast, with men taking a back seat most of the time. (The society is somewhat of a matriarchy, although the chief bad guy is a guy – and his gender doesn’t seem to be an issue.) In some ways, this reads oddly – Saffron is important, but not that important. She plays an important role, yet she isn’t the chosen one or something along those lines. The women are a varied lot, from the towering (and dislikeable) matriarch of the rebels to Gwen and the younger women. It’s an interesting inverse of the traditional male-dominated fantasy tropes and, in general, it works … at least partly, I think, because there is no apparent awareness of this.

And yet, there are aspects of it that doesn’t. The ending, in my opinion, is something of a letdown. Saffron’s choice, when offered the chance to go home, is both understandable and tragic. Gwen makes a basic mistake that leaves room open for a sequel. And magic – such as it is – and to some extent the plot itself relies on connections between the female (and one male) cast. Some of these connections are unknown, apparently to some of the characters as well as the reader, until they become important. Meadows doesn’t foreshadow them enough for my liking. This universe doesn’t hang together as well as Mistborn, for example. And yet, as a general rule, it is a readable book.

Meadows deserves credit for creating a world that looks and feels different to both ours and the standard fantasy universe we know and love from countless books. Society has many differences – poly-marriages are common in this universe, for example – and this is both good and bad, underlining the problems with the increased demand for ‘diversity’ in fantasy and science-fiction. (Meadows certainly did put her money where her mouth is.) It is harder to follow what is going on – and why it is important – than it would be in a more conventional setting. This book could probably have done with a detailed description of the universe at the back. As it is, the cynic in me wonders if the only people intent on overthrowing the bad guy are the losers in the struggle for power. Saffron is perhaps the only person involved with the rebels who doesn’t have a personal motive as well as an idealistic one.

At the same time, there are moments that rang oddly. On a minor scale, Saffron berates herself for not accepting – emotionally – that fourteen-year-old brown-skinned Viya is actually a queen – and blames it on racism. Yet someone from our society would have trouble believing that a teenage girl would wield real authority, regardless of the colour of her skin. (Historically, kings and princes did start early, although child-kings were almost always bad news.) On a more major scale, Gwen (who was born and raised in Thatcher’s Britain) tells Saffron that she feels more comfortable in her new world than her old.

This rubbed me the wrong way for all kinds of reasons. On one hand, I can understand someone feeling that way; on the other hand, Gwen is ignoring some of the harsh realities of a medieval world. Given that she did have a hand in political developments, even though she made a serious mistake and presumably had to run, I’d say she entered society in her new world, perhaps through her marriage, at a very high level. People who say they’d be happier in the past – or another world – don’t understand what it means to be without toilets, air conditioning, hot and cold running water, modern medicine, etc. The life of the vast majority of the population, back then, was nasty, brutish and short. Part of the reason societies were male-dominated was that women often died in childbirth. Even the most powerful men (Pompey the Great, for example) couldn’t save their wives from dying in childbirth.

Would Gwen want to stay if she spent her life toiling in the fields? Or cleaning manure from the streets? Or doing something else menial because there is no technology to do it for her? I have a firm belief that most of the people who complain about the modern world have never lived in a second or third world country. Gwen seems to lack an understanding she should have. And this leads to a different point – if you can go backwards and forwards, why not try to obtain weapons and tech from Earth?

There are people who would say this is a kind of imperialism. Maybe it is, in a sense. And yet, these people are not the ones who have to live in primitive conditions. If they did, their opinions would change.

Overall, An Accident of Stars is an interesting book. There are moments I liked, such as Saffron’s arrival and slow introduction to her new world, and moments I felt were marginally awkward and/or shoehorned in. Saffron’s bisexuality is played up too much for a minor plot point, along with Gwen’s poly-marriage; Saffron’s appearance being unique (and her closest counterpart’s seeming reluctance to interbreed) feels like a point that doesn’t need to be made repeatedly. The plot moves slowly, driven a little too much by coincidence and the ending had problems, although understandable ones. (Saffron goes home, forever changed.)

But it is definitely worth a read.

(And it gave me an idea for a book. What if someone did import modern weapons and mercenaries?)

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3 Responses to “Book Review – An Accident of Stars”

  1. Pyo August 1, 2017 at 8:14 pm #

    I liked a lot about that novel, particularly the refreshing setting, but ultimately found it hard to get invested in the story. Saffron is (literally) the outsider. She’s more of a tag-along than a doer with her own agenda. Logically, this makes sense, since why would she for example care about the political differences between this Matriarchy and the Kingdom she starts at? Neither are her home.

    This gets compounded by the characters that seem believable, but don’t end up being very likable, in my opinion. This is again probably realistic, but again didn’t encourage me to root for anyone. As the motivations of the bad guys(tm) are also largely unknown, I found it hard to really care what the outcome of the story was.

    I think this tried to be more than a standard portal-fantasy, and in many ways succeeded, and I want to praise the author for trying, but at the same time I just don’t think it pulled it quite of, and would perhaps have been a better novel if it had simplified some aspects (like a smaller cast for one).

    What I disagree with is your problem with Gwen. She never says the new world is better than the old one, she just says she feels more at home there, which I don’t find surprising, as she’s created a family there that she’s obviously comfortable with. Besides, she has a bit of a “back to the roots” attitude, which, yes, isn’t my cup of tea either, but such people exist, and there’s nothing wrong with being content with it. Childbirth problems and such are one thing, but she obviously has access to magic and the ability to travel between worlds (also others, not just Earth and that one), so I doubt this sort of thing bugs her much.

    Plus, there is the issue of going back from a life of adventure, where she’s essentially some type of “hero”, to a mundane life on Earth. You can see the “effects” of that in the second novel for the heroine 😉

    Also, her main characteristic is that she regrets meddling in politics and you suggest she should meddle further by importing technology? I’d think that’s the last thing she’d consider doing 😉

  2. Christopher M. Chupik August 1, 2017 at 11:58 pm #

    If someone did import weapons and mercs this would be my favorite new series from Baen.

  3. allyk August 2, 2017 at 12:07 am #

    > What if someone did import modern weapons and mercenaries?

    well . . . it would probably be something like
    David Weber’s Safehold or
    Eric Flint’s 1632 or
    Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen or
    S M Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time or
    Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South or
    David Drake & Eric Flint’s Belisarius or
    Leo Frankowski’s Conrad Stargard or
    William R Forstchen’s Lost Regiment or
    . . . well you get the idea

    (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it. It’s such a popular genre because it provides so many possibilities. I would love to see your spin on it.)

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