An Accident of Stars
by Foz Meadows
Until the death of Google Reader, I was a regular subscriber to Foz Meadows' blog, so I was absolutely delighted to have the chance to read her book. I think I would have been absolutely captivated by Accident of Stars when I was younger. Thematically, it's a coming-of-age story in a creative high fantasy world, and not only are the majority of protagonists teenagers, but the story is also blissfully devoid of love triangles, self-image issues, and school-related angst. Sadly, I've since become rather more jaded. The story is an homage to traditional high fantasy, but with a strongly feminist slant. As an almost exact contrast to standard epic fantasy, almost all of the characters of importance--protagonists, villains, and everything in between-- are female. Pure gender swapping was observable in everything from the matriarchal societies to the female role as warrior to the fact that in this world, it's women who can't ask for directions because
"Women were gifted by Sahu with the knowledge of orientation: admitting failure in that respect would open her up to mockery."
The message of the story, too, are equally blatant. Possibly because I was so cognizant of Meadows' role as social commentator, the feminism and seemed rather self-conscious to me. It's all fun, but felt so very self-aware that it prevented me from really getting into the flow of the story.
Accident of Stars follows something of a good-evil dichotomy of traditional epic fantasy. Our usurping villains are apparently Evil Incorporated™, even though we see very little of their dastardly plans, possibly because they're so much an afterthought to the meat of the tale. At least one of the villains appears to be evil for the sake of evil; the other has a motivation right out of an 1890s morality tale.
The characters themselves never quite came alive to me, perhaps because so much of their personalities and interactions are driven by the plot. I saw Gwen as the clearest example of this: although born on earth, Gwen creates a life for herself on the other world, including two partners and a child. Yet while she thinks about them often, it's in a plot-driven way: her lovers remain utter nonentities, their entire characters limited to their names and genders. I felt that the characters were shaped by the plot and message, not the other way around. The character I found most intriguing--and, not coincidentally, the only one I felt escaped the good-evil dichotomy-- was Yasha, a dictatorial outcast matriarch whose motives are murky for much of the story.
Even though I loved how Meadows eschewed a white default, I was somewhat troubled by the treatment of race and ethnicity. One of my major irritations is when authors reflect an oversimplification of the ethnicities of our world into theirs. In this case, apparently being black means you're Uyun. That's right; apparently your skin tone dictates your nationality, ethnicity, and culture, all in one go. Even though Uyuns live in other cities, their skin color defines them. No matter how self-consciously Meadows tries to explore racial issues, everything in the world she creates seems to depend on skincolor--nationality, culture, religion. Is there no intermixing, no sharing of cultures here? Why does everyone assume the black person from Earth is Uyun and thus apparently from that country rather than the area she lives in? I admit I'm disappointed. I would have expected her to have picked up on how problematic and limiting a skin-color-equals-nationality-equals-culture setup can be.
I'm not sure what genre is targeted, but personally I feel that this fits comfortably into the YA framework. Sure, parents may be a little uncomfortable at the idea of polyamory, but nothing is graphic, and the general themes-- empowerment, coming of age, etc-- seem to fit the genre rather well. I think this is the type of book I would have utterly adored as a high-schooler. It creates a world of acceptance and feminism, a sharp contrast to the rigid gender roles so often seen in high fantasy. If you're looking for a modern take on Narnia-style worlds-through-portals, Accident of Stars is worth a look.
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Angry Robot Books, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review.~~