Book Review – Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

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Title: Of Fire and Stars
Author: Audrey Coulthurst
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Genre: YA Fantasy, LGBTQIA+ Romance

I have been procrastinating on writing this review, because I do not enjoy writing negative reviews. Sadly, I was not a fan of this book. I desperately wanted to be, but it all felt like a bucket of lost potential.

In Of Fire and Stars,  Princess Denna of Havemont has been betrothed to marry the Prince of Mynaria, Thandi, since she was a young child. Her marriage will seal an alliance between the two kingdoms, but she is harboring a secret – she possesses a Fire Affinity – a dangerous gift in the land of Mynaria, where magic is forbidden. Along the way, she meet’s the Prince’s sister, Mare, and they decide to join forces to search for the culprit of a mysterious assassination.

I was incredibly excited when the LGBTQIA+ novel, Of Fire and Stars, showed up in my OwlCrate box in December. There are so few f/f fantasy novels out there, and this one definitely has an interesting premise. An arranged marriage, with Denna falling for her betrothed sister instead? My curiosity was piqued.

And then, everything fell flat. And by flat, I mean FLAT. The world-building, the character development, even the dialogue, was all….meh. There was also way too much dialogue and pages dedicated to horses…and I love horses! By the end of the book, I was groaning and skimming every time another section came up focused on horses.

Where, oh where, art thou character development?

All of the main characters were incredibly one-dimensional. Mare, Prince Thandi’s sister, (yes, the character who has loved horses her whole life is seriously nicknamed Mare) is the token “bad girl”, complete with temper tantrums and extreme sulking. Denna, newly arrived in the land, is the “good one”, apparently full of sugar and spice and everything nice. Mare is rebellious and Denna is good. Denna breaks her mold towards the end, but even there it just fell flat. Don’t get me started on her magic and the stars falling scene – one of the most awkward things I have ever read. It made no sense the way it was written.

As for the rest of the cast, wow, I know nothing. Seriously, nothing. Poor Prince Thandi, with no personality, felt like a shell. The Directorate – the people who make the policy decisions in Mynaria – are clueless and incompetent. I mean, truly and incredibly dense.

Can someone explain the Northern Kingdoms?

Despite finishing the novel, I still don’t understand what this world is about. Why did Mynaria hate magic so much? A legitimate reason was never given for this intense hatred of magic users. Nor was there much of an explanation for the sudden existence of the Recusants vs the fundamentalists. Who were the fundamentalists, even? This lack of depth was incredibly frustrating for me. We’re plunged into a world with four kingdoms that together seem to make up the “Northern Kingdoms”, but we find out nothing about the history or political situations underlying these lands. Such as, why has Prince Thandi never left the castle’s home in Lyrra? Why can’t he explore his own lands?

The idea of having an Affinity (Magic) connected to one of the six gods was intriguing and new, if it would have been further developed. Yet once again, the reader is left with no real understanding of the magic and religion of these lands.

Refreshingly, heterosexuality is not assumed as the default sexual orientation – but then why on earth was there so much sexism in the novel? From the time Denna arrived in Mynaria, she is held back by what appears to be strict gender roles; as future queen, she is expected to be the castle’s numero uno party planner and tour guide. One of the only conversations that Denna has with the king is this:

“No need to be too formal among family,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll be relying on you to keep this son of mine in line. It has been too long since we’ve had a woman’s touch about the place.”

I can list at least ten ways in which this exchange makes absolutely no sense. But you get the idea. A few of the people on the Directorate are women, but they barely have a voice. That may be due more to poor character development, but it is still frustratingly annoying.

I was really excited about reading this novel, but ultimately, it was a tremendous let down.

This now makes two books in a row that I have rated two stars, something that does not happen very often. Thankfully, I’m now reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which is FANTASTIC. So, hopefully, this 2-star streak ends here.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – George by Alex Gino

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Title: George
Author: Alex Gino
Publisher: Scholastic
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary, Own Voices, LGBTQIA+

Whew. Everything seems to be a tear-jerker to me right now. President Obama’s farewell address. Joe Biden being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. Lin Manuel-Miranda and Christopher Jackson performing “One Last Time” from Hamilton, at the White House.

This is Us. To be honest, every episode of This is Us makes me sweat water out of my eyes.

And George.

This sweet, beautiful, heartwarming story about a transgender girl’s struggle to come out to her family and friends. It strikes the perfect tone for a middle-grade story tackling a serious subject. Many transgender kids know who they are years in advance of puberty and adolescence, which is one of the many reasons why this is so important to have as a middle-grade book.

George is a delightful character, who exudes a quiet strength. From the start of the story, we see George thinking of herself through the use of feminine pronouns, which frankly, if it wasn’t done that way, would have been disappointing. She has always been sure of her identity, but lacked the self-confidence to be her true self in front of others.

Yes, this is a middle-grade novel, but I definitely think it has appeal to everyone, no matter your age. And the first time that we see George genuinely smile – unforced – it is a beautiful thing. I found Kelly to also be a delightful character. A true friend, who supports and accepts George as she is…the two have a very sweet friendship that shines throughout the story.

My daughter is currently a 3rd grader, and it was very interesting to compare how many things were gendered in George’s school compared to my daughter’s school. There are no restrictions at M’s school when kids try out for parts in a play or musical, unlike George’s experience with Charlotte’s Web. Last summer, our large school district passed a policy that will go a long way towards phasing out gender-based activities that “have no educational purpose”, such as having a girls’ and boys’ line to go to recess, a situation that George was confronted with every day. While M’s school does not use gender-based lining up, other schools in the district still did. Our school board has also asked teachers to stop using gender pronouns, to replace “boys” and “girls” with “scholars” or “students”. This last action was HUGE, and sadly, provoked a huge outcry from the religious right in our community. I am grateful that we live in a school district that is taking progressive steps towards supporting transgender students, and making the school environment a safe space for everyone.

However, there is still progress to be made at M’s school. For example, in her PE class yesterday, the class was divided by gender to play a game. George really helped M and I start to think about all of the situations in which gender distinctions arise, and how the majority of them can very easily be done in a gender-neutral way.

Living in North Carolina, our state has gotten its fair share of negative attention, deservedly, over the past year for the state legislature’s horrendous actions with passing HB2 (coined by the media as “the bathroom bill”), a topic I won’t go into too much detail here, but was a direct attack against the LGBT community, and most especially transgender individuals. When that legislation was first passed, I sent each of my legislature’s that voted for HB2 (and in one case, co-sponsored it), a copy of George.

I hope they read it.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars