Hello! June is coming to a close, which means Mary and Emily are here to discuss their second book in their Summer YA Book Club Series, Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst. Just as a reminder, we reviewed The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich at the end of May, and we have two more books coming up at the end of July and August: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli and finally The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon.
But back to the book we're discussing this month!
Mary: So this month we're talking about Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst! It's a high fantasy novel that follows Dennaleia, a princess, as she prepares to marry her betrothed Prince Thandilimon, BUT the novel takes a turn when Denna actually falls in love with her betrothed's sister, Mare. The two fall in love and work together to uncover a secret plot that threatens to destroy their kingdom! Classic fantasy plot.
Emily: I would say yes it was pretty classic.
Mary: The twist is that two princesses fall in love, if we want to call that a twist.
Emily: I don't think it's a twist when it's set up from the beginning, and they're holding hands on the cover of the book.
Mary: Hahaha this is very true. I guess I should say, the spin on classic fantasy tropes
Emily: So obviously what drew us to this particular novel was its lesbian romance at the center of the story, but before we get into the book... lemme ask you this. Aside from being about two lesbians falling in love, did this book do anything interesting with the YA fantasy genre?
Mary: Hmmm that's a good question.
Emily: Oh also I guess in the summary you forgot to mention that Denna has magic powers. And a la Elsa in Frozen, she's very "conceal don't feel," which is interesting considering Elsa's maybe a lesbian as well...
Mary: I'm not entirely sure if this book is doing anything interesting with the genre. I have to admit I don't read a lot of fantasy novels, and am mostly familiar with fantasy tropes through D&D (one day I promise to do a blog on tabletop rpgs Bc this is the millionth time I've mentioned it). For me, this novel is working as a mystery with a fantasy setting. It's not new per se, but there are some good genres being mashed together for an ok effect. What did you think?
Emily: So let's do a basic world set up for errbody. (here I go. don't stop me)
Mary: Go go!
Emily: Please excuse the RIDICULOUS sounding names of all of these kingdoms. Denna is from Havemont, where she grew up being groomed to marry the Prince of Mynaria (who is named Thandilimion or Thandi) in order to create an alliance. Both of these kingdoms are very anti-magic, even though it's clear the six gods they worship are connected to the six "affinities" of magic. From a young age, Denna seems to have fire affinity, but she's told to hold it back because, again, magic = bad. There are two other kingdoms mentioned in the novel: Sonnenborne and Zumorda. Zumorda is like the place where all the "bad guys" who love magic live. At least that's what these other kingdoms think. And so as soon as evil magic shit starts going down everyone just ASSUMES the terrible Zumordans are responsible because Zumordans ruin everything. So that's, like, the "political" backdrop for this novel.
Mary: THANDI. Most absurd name ever.
Emily: And of course, like every fantasy novel, the politics of the novel are allegory for real world political issues.
Mary: I kept thinking of it as Thandy-lemon.
Emily: If you can't work out what this might be an allegory for, then I don't know how to help you. It seems pretty obvious to me.
Mary: It's pretty obvious.
Emily: So the magic works as symbolism in two ways. First of all, the fear of magic is clearly symbolic of homophobia, but also considering the political climate, it's working as a symbol of xenophobia as well.
Mary: Definitely--fear of the unknown Zumordians. The Other.
Emily: The TERRORISTS.
Mary: I really picked up on it as a stand in for homophobia because this setting functions as a utopia, sexually speaking. Everyone is just chill about marrying whoever you want Nobles, peasants, they're all cool with being gay, but MAGIC *gasp* Magic, a trait you're born with that marks you as other.
Mary: I did appreciate how open everyone was about sexuality. When characters had problems with same sex relationships it was due to class, or, well, the fact one of the characters was engaged to Thandy-lemon. Who was a dummy. MarexDanna forever.
Emily: I wish he hadn't been such a dummy.
Mary: He could've been really interesting. Which is how I felt about a lot of things in this novel.
Emily: Yeah, I think it would have been more interesting if he had been a nice guy who didn't have sweaty lips. So that it wasn't like "Ew, he's terrible, I guess I love Mare now."
Mary: Definitely. Because boy does it take a long time for the romance with mare to blossom.
Emily: Like, he can be great and all, but if you don't like dudes, you don't like dudes. It was page 277 when Mare and Denna finally kissed I think?
Mary: That killed me. It took so long.
Emily: But then there was a pretty steamy scene. How did you like that?
Mary: I get it, I am the prude of the squad, but like, all the romance and kissing and steaminess needed to happen so much earlier in the novel. I thought the sex scene was pretty tasteful and good! It wasn't too much.
Emily: When I read that, I thought "I wonder how Mary coped with all of this groping."
Mary: It's how I think most YA books should do it--something in between fade to black and HE THRUST HIS THROBBING MEMBER INTO HER LOVE CAVE. You know?
Emily: Yeah. But yeah for like the whole 277 pages leading up to this kiss, I was basically Sebastian in the Little Mermaid during Ariel and dumb Eric's romantic boat ride.
Mary: Ugh me too!
Emily: I'm bringing the Disney references today.
Mary: Disney references are preferred! And a lot of that build up was all "I felt hot and not in a magic way.” And that got old.
Emily: Hahahaha. Just imagine if she had a water affinity instead.
Mary: Hahahaha. Were you surprised by the ending?
Emily: No, I wasn't surprised by the ending. You mean the guy who wants to marry Mare and take her away from Denna forever is also the bad guy?
Mary: Exactly! I wanted more of a surprise than that.
Emily: I pictured him looking like Jafar from Aladdin.
Mary: I pictured him more as a Prince Hans type. Very charming but like, a jerk.
Emily: He seemed a bit pushy to me from the get-go.
Mary: But pushy in a nice way!
Emily: No. Pushy is not nice.
Mary: You're right. I didn't hate him for a while though.
Emily: He had a stupid name too. The names in this book were just bad.
Mary: I don't know about you, but I never had a horse phase, so I was kind of feeling meh about a chunk of the book that was all about horses. And yes, I totally agree on the names. So bad.
Emily: Yeah well clearly this author is really into horses.
Mary: Which is cool! It's just not my thing.
Emily: Her bio says she loves to write about horses and I was thinking, "clearly."
Emily: Yeah I don't get it. Every time they got emotional about horses, I just imagined cats instead
And then I was like "oohhhh I get it."
Mary: Awwww omg can you imagine? Riding on big cats. Going cat riding with your lover.
Emily: Someone write me a lesbian fantasy book about cats. And I will write the most glowing review.
Mary: Your brother threatening to sell you favorite cat.
Emily: OH HELL NO! I would rage. I would burn the whole kingdom to the ground.
Mary: Me tooooo. That was one part where I felt very strongly, when Prince Thandi sold Mare's horse.
Emily: Yeah, don't be a dick Thandi.
Mary: Prince Sweaty Lip.
Emily: Hahaha! Okay so another thing I had issue with: The story changes perspectives from chapter to chapter. We switch between Denna and Mare. But sometimes I would have to check the beginning of the chapter because their voices were so similar, the way they wrote about the world and narrated the world were so similar, that I really couldn't tell sometimes who was narrating. And yeah, context clues help, but writing clues should be involved too.
Mary: It was hard to figure out sometimes. They sounded the same.
Emily: They just sounded like the exact same person.
Mary: They had different interests I guess
Emily: Kind of?
Mary: One liked horses more.
Emily: What are Denna's interests? The harp?
Mary: Yes hahaha! Being pretty.
Emily: I just feel like as characters they weren't very developed so it was hard to cling to anything in their narratives.
Mary: I agree.
Emily: HOWEVER, with that being said, I was still really rooting for them as a couple. I don’t know if that's just because I love a good lesbian story or what.
Mary: Me too! Their romance wasn't played off or presented as a problem because they were both women. This is a HUGE deal in YA lit where most stories that feature a gay couple are all about the ~forbidden~ love aspect. It's 2017. Let's get over that.
Emily: This is forbidden because of a betrothal and also, just in general, it's kinda wrong to hit on your brother's fiancée. Just, you know, normally.
Mary: It is, but to be fair to Denna she never really wanted to marry lemon-brain.
Emily: And he didn't really care about her either so it was A-OK.
Mary: It's definitely a situation where the reader knows enough about the context to say, ok I'm cool with this. Lemon doesn't care about her (Mare even says at some point he treats her like an object), and mare definitely loves her.
Emily: But wouldn't it have been MORE interesting if he had cared about her? And she was like, well damn, I can't reciprocate because I'm super gay.
Mary: YES. I kind of had a pet theory that everyone in the novel was bisexual or something because no one seemed opposed to any sort of romance, which on one hand is cool but… Some people just don't like dudes, or some dudes just don't like ladies. And I think it's more powerful to say these characters are coming to understand an important part of their identity as young gay women than to just be like lol everyone's down to get down. That would cheapen it. But none of that is ever said really.
Emily: Yeah, although it's hard out there for bi girls too.
Mary: Definitely! Bisexual folks often just get erased from the narrative entirely
Emily: And I don't think Mare is interested in dudes. Obviously because she wears pants.
Mary: BUT she did have a sexual relationship with her best bro Nils?
Emily: Oh right!
Mary: RIP Nils!
Emily: Another dumb name. Although I think Nils was the best character.
Mary: She said there wasn't any romantic love there but they had sex just for fun.
Emily: And I would totally make out with Nils.
Mary: Dude yes. I loved Nils so much.
Emily: He sounds like a hottie
Mary: I would make out with Nils so hard. Wouldn't even be mad he made out with the whole kingdom.
Emily: Nah, I'd be like, "That makes sense. You're hot and beautiful."
Mary: Share the love.
Emily: Yeah, I can't hold you back. Fly, Nils, fly!
Mary: So, I'd say this book is worth checking out if you're really into YA fantasy.
Emily: Or if you're interested in reading about a YA lesbian couple, start at 277.
Mary: If you love horses start from page 1.
Emily: If you don't love horses, pretend they're cats.
Mary: But you're gonna have to pretend really hard.
Emily: Oh, I did. I pretended very hard.
Mary: Go Cat Horses.
Emily: I love cats so much.
Mary: Me tooooo! Angels.
And that, ladies and gents, is our second installment of Summer YA Book Club. Be sure to let us know what you thought about this book if you read along with us, and come back at the end of July for our next book, The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli!
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.