Star Eater by Kerstin Hall, published 22 June 2021.
This dystopian-esque fantasy novel has an MC fit for a YA novel, hereditary magic based on cannibalism, a Sisterhood of nuns running the government, a resistance movement, zombies, food shortage, and big cats.
This review is based on an ARC of the Recorded Books audiobook.
Where do I even start?
I’d have liked some pointers as to where we are, what kind of period of human history this might be similar too. The only information I get on that is there are horses drawing carts and cabs. Also gas lamps are mentioned once. So, probably somewhere similar to the late Middle Ages with gas lamps?
The main character El/Elfreda is a 22-year-old acolyte of the sacred order of sisters that is ruling Aytrium. She became an acolyte about a year ago when her mother went into her martyrdom. She is, [let’s say it together:], no one special and yet the chosen one to save the world. Add a love triangle or two to the mix,… Yet, the book is hailed as not YA.
The magic system: Magic is called Lace. It is used for protection and defence against Haunts (zombie men created through the Renewal ceremonies performed by acolytes, see below) mainly, but can also be used for compulsion of others. Furthermore, it is used to keep Aytrium afloat. [It’s not quite clear to me whether Aytrium is a country or a city with a few villages surrounding it. Also, it wasn’t clear to me that Aytrium was a floating landmass and has been floating for more than 500 years. It was first explicitly mentioned at about 60% of the audiobook; let’s hope the print edition will have a map that shows this.]
The following paragraphs will contain spoilers. Frankly, I didn’t very much like this book. It is a non-YA YA novel with YA characters, having YA relationships, YA dialogues and affects, and the adults have betrayed them.
Only the members of the Sisterhood have Lace. It’s hereditary magic, which means, it is passed on from mother to daughter after the mother starts her martyrdom. The martyrdom means, the mother falls in some form of coma after her own mother dies and her daughter now has to make weekly visits to her mother in the facility where martyrs are stored. This is a kind of morgue where the still breathing corpses are stored so that daughters can eat some of their mother’s flesh to replenish their Lace. In the flesh and organs, the magic is stored, hence the extremities are eaten first, the organs, especially the heart, last.
In order to keep the Lace within the Order, the members of the Sisterhood cannot have heterosexual relationships. How do they procreate then? The acolytes must perform monthly Renewal ceremonies where they have to have sex with a convicted murderer or rapist. If they get pregnant and the child turns out a boy, the child is given away, and the acolyte has to continue the renewal ceremonies. If the child is a girl, the acolyte keeps the child, raises it, and is henceforth released from renewal duty; grandmothers go into martyrdom and mothers and daughters now have the clock ticking for when they will ‘level up’ within the Sisterhood.
These renewal ceremonies create zombie-like creatures. The men the nuns have sex with catch some form of STD that turns them into Haunts that will, if they aren’t “sent over the edge” (can’t be killed, can’t stay in Aytrium either), haunt the Sisters in order to kill and eat them. Sometimes, men catch this zombie disease without having to have had sex with a member of the order, this means they are used in the renewal ceremonies until the disease is so far advanced that they have to be “sent over the edge.” [The term is mentioned early on in the book, but it doesn’t mean that the listener/reader automatically knows that Aytrium is a floating landmass. Could refer to a cliff-face over, say, an ocean, too.]
As it happens, the Haunts are exactly how the Chosen One story-line gets going. El, our doormat of an MC, hates having to eat the flesh of her mother, hates the Renewal – for obvious reasons – so when a cabal approaches her with the promise to get her out of renewal ceremonies, she agrees to spy for them. Like in every dystopian YA story, she learns about how the ruling class is cheating and suppressing critical information, she wants to support the resistance without actually betraying her vows to the order, her best friends are in the midst of it. And of course, her best friend, from when they were kids and who El has a crush on, caught the zombie disease from one kiss they shared. And of course, the sister of this guy, also El’s best friend, is someone who not only El has a crush on, but who secretly has a crush on El too – hello love-triangle. Luckily this is kept at a minimum. When El and some other members of the Order find themselves in a trap (one with a capital T, predictable from a mile ahead), El finds out that she is the one child born every 70 years that could make or break the Order. Either the Order will gorge themselves on El, because she has lots of Lace. Or El has to bring the Order down by sacrificing herself and her magic. Sacrificing herself will somehow bring her boy back from zombie-dom, so… the last 20% of the book are about how she gets to sacrifice herself.
Just FYI: The resistance see the Sisterhood as a tyrannical order of outsiders and want to get rid of them. The Sisterhood was able to crush all attempts so far, but the resistance is gaining ground, not least because some members of the Order are secretly working with them?
The food shortage seems to be a regularly occurring problem the Aytrium is facing, based on draught years and rain seasons. El works for the department that is responsible to find alternative food supplies. But, once the Chosen One plot gets under way the food shortage is no longer mentioned. I assume it is all resolved due to the way the story ends. Still, this subplot took up a lot of pages, just to be ignored in the end.
Also, there were big cats that were used for long distance travel. They were kept in stables and were probably only for the use of members of the Sisterhood. They can cover ground fast and they are warm in a chilly night.
The titular Star Eater is someone who might have eaten an actual star or someone who was considered the star, or ruler, of the people. Anyway, this eating of the star made the Star Eater so powerful with Lace she managed the ascension of Aytrium all on her own. How? Why?
To be honest, this book left me with a lot of questions about heredity, about the magic system, about the Haunts, about the original Star Eater and how and why Aytrium became a floating land, about what the rest of the world looked like, about why there is a resistance to the Sisterhood when we never get to see what’s so bad about it and know nothing about whether the general public is actually observing the Sisters’ religion, the (forced) bi-sexualism, and so much more.
1/5 Harpy Eagles – lots of unused potential, lots of predictable twists, reads YA although it is not supposed to be.