Starless: A sensitive portrayal of diverse characters

Starless by Jacqueline Carey epic fantasy book reviewsStarless by Jacqueline CareyStarless by Jacqueline Carey

For all of his life, young Khai has been training to be the “Shadow” protector of Zariya, the youngest daughter of his nation’s king. Nobody knows why the gods have decreed that Zariya, a politically unimportant princess, needs a protector, but the role as her shadow should be relatively easy. Nevertheless, Khai has trained hard and hopes he is ready for the role. When he arrives at the palace to finally meet his charge, Khai is surprised to discover that Zariya is not the kind of princess he envisioned and this is not going to be an easy assignment after all. Khai will be tested beyond what he thought was possible.

In many ways, Starless (2018) feels like so many other epic fantasies I’ve read, except that it’s written in Jacqueline Carey’s beautiful, evocative prose. The first section of Starless covers Khai’s youth and training with the monks he lives, studies, and trains with. This section takes up a large portion of the book and it’s enjoyable because Khai is a sympathetic character who becomes increasingly interesting after he discovers a huge secret that everyone’s been hiding from him. (I had a hard time believing this secret had been kept for so long, but I was willing to go along with it.)

Finally, though, Khai arrives at his palace job and, while he protects Zariya, he has to make the adjustment from monastery to palace life in a metropolitan capital city, especially learning to navigate the treacherous political climate. This kind of story is always intriguing and I loved it, though I wondered why the monks had never taken Khai to the city before. It seems like proper preparation for his job would include training exercises in a city.

Eventually Khai and Zariya discover the task the gods have prepared for them. It’s extremely dangerous and the fate of the world hinges upon the outcome of their quest. This section of the book feels rushed as the pace picks up drastically and, though exciting things happen from the perspective of the characters, it feels like a rather typical fantasy quest with a ragtag team of heroes travelling to an important location with an object of power (very similar to Mount Doom) while avoiding the monsters created by the evil villain. Very Tolkienesque.

What makes Starless different from previous epics (other than Carey’s glorious prose) is that her characters are diverse. Some of Carey’s heroes are non-binary and some have physical disabilities. I don’t want to give specifics so as not to spoil surprises, but readers who are looking for these types of characters will appreciate their prominence in Starless and will be pleased with how Carey deals with these sensitive issues. It is clear that Carey has listened to readers who’ve talked about these issues and has responded with a story that celebrates rather than “fixes” these characters.

For the first third of Starless, I thought this was going to be a 5-star book for me. Unfortunately, it later becomes strangely unbalanced in pacing and tone. I loved the first two sections when we met Khai and Zariya and watched them develop, try to navigate court politics, and try to work out who they are personally. But when the fantasy quest finally begins (⅔ through the book), it feels like Carey got word from her publicist that a three-book series suddenly had to be reduced to one book and she crammed books two and three into the last third of book one. Though this is where so much of the action is, the quest is too similar to similar stories and, for that reason, dull. I think Carey had a great thing going here until the abrupt shift happened in the latter third of Starless.

I listened to Caitlin Davies narrate Macmillan Audio’s edition of Starless. She does a really nice job. The book is 22 hours long in audio format.

Published in 2018. Jacqueline Carey is back with an amazing adventure not seen since her New York Times bestselling Kushiel’s Legacy series. Lush and sensual, Starless introduces us to an epic world where exiled gods live among us, and a hero whose journey will resonate long after the last page is turned.

Let your mind be like the eye of the hawk…Destined from birth to serve as protector of the princess Zariya, Khai is trained in the arts of killing and stealth by a warrior sect in the deep desert; yet there is one profound truth that has been withheld from him.

In the court of the Sun-Blessed, Khai must learn to navigate deadly intrigue and his own conflicted identity…but in the far reaches of the western seas, the dark god Miasmus is rising, intent on nothing less than wholesale destruction.

If Khai is to keep his soul’s twin Zariya alive, their only hope lies with an unlikely crew of prophecy-seekers on a journey that will take them farther beneath the starless skies than anyone can imagine.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. Charissa White /

    Thank you for your review.

    As a transgender human, I was struck by your parenthetical comment regarding your difficulty with Khai’s experience of gender…

    I feel like this aspect of the story deserves a deeper and more honoring examination than what you wrote, and it is clear to me why you made that choice btw…at least I think so? Because you wanted to discuss the entire story, and that is really cool too.

    Essentially, the presence of a non-binary character is likely a topic for its own review, rather than the risk of sounding dismissive about this crushingly crucial experience for gender variant humans and our living thru the (currently) oppressive binary experience of our time.

    I hope I am not sounding lecturing or disapproving, because I really enjoyed reading your review, and wanted to add my response and feelings to how it processed inside me from my pov in life.

    thank you so much
    Charissa White


      Hi Charissa,

      THANK YOU for the comment! I value your input.

      My parenthetical statement wasn’t meant to indicate disbelief about his experience, but just that I did not believe that this secret had been successfully kept for so long. Perhaps I can adjust it. My original statement was:

      (I had a hard time believing this, but I was willing to go along with it.)

      I will now change it to:

      (I had a hard time believing this secret had been kept for so long, but I was willing to go along with it.)

      The reason I didn’t talk about this aspect of the book more was simply that I wanted to avoid the spoiler. I thought about it for a while because, I agree, it is a really important part of the book and I didn’t want to downplay it, but I decided that keeping the secret was more important because when I read the book, I didn’t see it coming (I had not read reviews) and I thought the surprise was integral to my experience, so I wanted other readers to have that surprise, too. I thought the paragraph I wrote about it was sufficient to let readers know this was a major theme, dealt with sensitively, without spoiling.

      Another thing I thought about was that, not being transgender, I might not give the topic the treatment it deserved. Realizing how important it was, I was a little worried about trying to write about the portrayal of his experience when it is something I have not experienced. I wasn’t sure I was up to the task and realized that others could do better.

      But, mostly, I was worried about the spoiler.

      If you have written, or are willing to write, something about this, I’d love it if you’d put that in the comments here. Just put “SPOILER ALERT” at the top so readers will be warned about it.

      Again, thank you for the comment!

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