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.
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.