This book feels like a metaphor in search of a meaning. There’s a lot of gorgeous, elaborate, haunting imagery, but it’s ultimately not put in service to anything besides a ho-hum quest story. I almost wrote down “coming-of-age” there for quest but the protagonist is ostensibly twenty-two years old, even though she acts much younger.
Said protagonist is Elfreda Raughm, an Acolyte in the Sisterhood that rules Aytrium (which is undoubtedly the most weirdly banal name for a fantasy planet I’ve ever read. “Atrium to where?” I kept wondering.) The Sisterhood is almost as much fussy bureaucracy as it is an organization of the genetically exalted. The Sisters can manipulate an energy called Lace into doing various body-centered acts of telekinesis and telepathy. In order to do so, however, they have to consume the flesh of other Sisters, usually their own mothers kept in a stasis called Martyrdom (there’s something vague inserted here about keeping the bloodlines pure or something.)
El hates having to feed off slivers of her comatose Mom but she hates having to go through Renewal even more. In order to keep the bloodlines going, Sisters are required to mate, but any man who has sex with a Sister runs a high risk of turning into an immortal zombie-demon. So male criminals are telepathically coerced into having sex with specially purified Sisters — it’s as awful as it sounds — then when the illness that turns them into immortal zombie-demons takes hold, are thrown off the edge of the world into the Void. The flip side of this, ofc, is that Sisters basically can’t have heterosexual relationships, not without eventually unleashing a monster on the populace.
So that’s all pretty cool, but it’s turned to the service of a story that’s not only fairly basic, but also populated by a whole lot of cardboard characters. Worse, the details of, oh gosh, nearly everything are kept deliberately vague. There’s this sense of Motherhood killing the Sisters but there are not only a ton of older Sisters, there are also a bunch of Sisters busy raising their own daughters (their sons are taken away and killed, however.)
And that’s the main trouble with Star Eater: this book is essentially “what if reverse sexism?” which is SUCH a snoozefest that also makes no room, in this novel at least, for nonbinary or trans people. And don’t get me started on the “what if heterosexuality was the love that dare not speak it’s name?” Fucking yawn. It’s an adolescent mind experiment which, at best, might elicit sympathy from cis straight people who “never thought of it that way” (in this day and age!) There’s also an attempt at “colonizers bad!” towards the end to which, yes, but just devolving power the way the book does isn’t an automatic panacea, especially since El’s big “sacrifice” seems to be purely symbolic. How has the status quo changed? Who now holds the power? Is Lace even a thing any more? How was Lace even a thing to begin with? What is the entire deal with the Star?!
So many questions! I wanted to know so much more about the cannibal nuns and their magic system and history, preferably separate from the dire El. Granted, she was pretty interesting for the first three-quarters of the book or so but then she turned into an angsty adolescent, with her spunky best friend and her self-sacrificing love interest. And just, God, the nonsense about not leaving people behind in a firefight. I’m too irritated to go into military tactics and philosophy right now but it made my blood boil to see the way covering a retreat was uniformly treated as cowardice by the evacuating instead of courageous (and almost always necessary!) on the part of the covering soldiers. But then, the book had a tendency to wallow in the feelings of “victims” rather than in acknowledging and celebrating people’s strengths and choices, which is truly bizarre from a book that’s ostensibly pro-choice (but totally in keeping with the rest of the book’s clumsy handling of anything remotely approaching empathy and selflessness.)
Ugh, the more I write, the more I remember the things that really didn’t make sense about this book. Genuinely bizarre that a book about body horror and grotesque visions grossed me out more for the pedestrian YA storyline and angst than for any of the horror trappings.
Star Eater by Kerstin Hall was published June 22 2021 by tordotcom and is available from all good booksellers, including