Release Date: 21 April 2020
Published by: ACE
Fucked if I know. Fantasy, sci-fi elements.
Review Copy: Courtesy of the author.
The Girl and the Stars is a spectacular opening act to what promises to be one of the finest trilogies of this new decade*.
So many of my fellow bloggers have spoken to the quality of Mark Lawrence’s writing, a fact I have only the barest hint of experience with, in the form of Prince of Thorns, Mark’s debut. I had high expectations but… It’s no stretch to say that they were overcome, with remarkable ease, by this latest release.
I hesitate to call The Girl and the Stars a fantasy novel – chock-full with sci-fi elements, it reminds me of the writing of Zelazny and Gene Wolfe more than anything else in how seamlessly it falls under the cap of speculative fiction; the world is, though its characters might not realize it, a post-apocalyptic one. That’s the speculative fiction trifecta right there! Don’t draw any conclusions yet, though – Lawrence might make use of many different genre conventions but in doing so, he makes of them a homogenous mass. Otherworldly is a term often used for fantasy novels, rarely so apt as it is for The Girl and the Stars.
It is a triumph of the imagination, and a wonder. The characters are relatable and deeply human, even those you’d least expect to be. Helming the series is lead character Yaz, a young woman of the Ichta tribe torn away from her family and the life on the ice she has always known:
She lived a life in the jaws of the wind, her eyes trained to find meaning within a hundred shades of white and grey. She lived as a singular mote of warmth upon a vast and lifeless wilderness.
Yaz is forced into the subterranean darkness** of a hole in which the broken children of the tribes – those too different to survive the cold of the ice – are thrown. Lawrence does an excellent job creating a world in the throes of ice, a cruel surface that holds an ever-present danger…only to throw Yaz into a world beyond the one she could’ve imagined, and one she is unprepared for. How could anyone be prepared? The world below the ice is alien – warmer, holding buried secrets and ancient threats. But also the promise of a life different to the one Yaz has spent her whole life living.
I adore the abilities Yaz and those other survivors in the hole have, what Yaz thinks of as magic but is hinted to be something different at one time or another. Mark does a wonderful job introducing how each gift works, and then exploits all of them in unexpected ways at just the right moment. The results are nothing less than a series of thrills.
I admire the way the author shapes a culture like that of the Ichta early on: “Even in their tents they wore mittens anytime that fine tasks were not required. It was easy to forget that people even had fingers.” Look at the way he makes of these people something unique. Through describing so small a thing, he’s already differentiated the Ichta in a memorable way, and has introduced a motif that has an effect on Yaz throughout – skin contact. The prose is brilliant at this throughout – introducing small details and not just calling back to them but using them to the best effect imaginable, creating the illusion in the reader that every detail has some hidden meaning.
Lawrence does an excellent job in exploring several themes throughout the 370-page count of this novel. The questioning of the nature of compromise is present throughout – does survival in the harshness excuse the sacrifice of those who are born different or broken? That’s a question Yaz is drawn to time and again. She is also drawn towards the need to know herself, in a way that mirrors the obsession one of the most fascinating antagonists in the novel, Theus. Something else that haunts the pages is the mention of “fire and glory,” or “Greatness, torment and fire.” Look out for that one.
As for the ending…I have three words for it***: Such sweet torment. Questions linger, a score of them at least. It’s going to be a long wait until the next one – lucky for me, I have plenty of Mark Lawrence’s books to catch up on in the meanwhile. My score for this masterpiece is 6/5, 11/10!
P.S. If you, like me, enjoy listening to music while reading books, a couple of soundtracks work wonders as background – Austin Wintory’s soundtracks for Banner Saga 2 & 3, and Piotr Musiał’s Frostpunk score.
*If Mr. Lawrence disappoints us down the line, I say we lynch him! Or, if that’s not your thing, write a strongly worded letter.
** This is incidentally the second excellent fantasy book telling the story of a young woman surviving underground through what seems at times sheer force of will I’ve read this year, the first being Rob J. Hayes’ Along the Razor’s Edge.
*** I have a lot more than three words, but the book hasn’t yet been released. I would, in fact, like to scream bloody murder – maybe in a couple of weeks? A deep dive? Do I hear an amen?!