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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review: Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst (An OwlCrate book of the month)

Before I get into my review of Audrey Coulthurst’s book, Of Fire and Stars I’d like to start off by briefly talking about how I found out about this book. I originally heard about this book from various people on BookTube (YouTube), and I even pre-ordered it on Amazon at one point. However, I ultimately got my copy of Of Fire and Stars in the December 2016 OwlCrate box. In case you don’t know what OwlCrate is, it’s a monthly YA book box. There’s a different theme for the box each month; for example, the theme for the December box was “Epic”. Each month the box includes a recently released hardback YA book, along with a letter from the author, a signed bookplate (The author’s autograph), as well as three to five items centered around the theme for that month. Here’s a picture of everything that came in the December 2016 box that I posted on Instagram to give people an idea of what kind of things they include in the boxes each month.

A post shared by Taylor Glissman (@tmswriter6) on

Plans start at $29.99, plus shipping. The people who run OwlCrate are all very nice, and they’re really great at answering any questions that people may have about OwlCrate on Twitter, or via email. I highly recommend subscribing to OwlCrate, especially if you’re a fan of YA books. If you’re interested in learning more about OwlCrate, or subscribing to it, you can check out their website here. For the record, I wasn’t asked by the owners of OwlCrate to promote their business on my blog; I’m only mentioning OwlCrate here because I really love OwlCrate a lot, especially now that I’m basically focusing on only reviewing books for my blog instead of TV shows. In case you’re unaware, I reviewed Jeff Zentner’s debut novel, The Serpent King, which was OwlCrate’s book of the month for March of last year when the theme was Writer’s Block. I’ve also reviewed Kasie West’s book, P.S. I Like You, which was the August 2016 book of the month. With all that said, here are my thoughts on Audrey Coulthurst’s book, Of Fire and Stars.

Right off the bat, I have to say that Of Fire and Stars is a book that I was highly anticipating prior to its release for a lot of reasons. Being bisexual myself, reviewing books that feature LGBT characters is something that I’ve really wanted to do with my blog, so I was very intrigued and excited to read a YA book that not only featured LGBT characters, but was first and foremost focused on a same-sex romance, rather than have the LGBT characters be regulated to simply being supporting characters in the book. Plus, I’m just a huge fan of books that are either a part of the romance genre, or books where romance is simply a big part of the plot in general. I also love science fiction and fantasy books, so the fantasy elements that are featured in this book were definitely another thing that really drew me to Of Fire and Stars. While I ultimately didn’t think that Of Fire and Stars was perfect, for the most part, this book totally delivered in terms of what I wanted to get out of it; and at times it even exceeded my expectations.

Denna and Mare are both really great characters, individually, and I also thought that they made a really cute couple. I love how the love story between Denna and Mare in Of Fire and Stars is very much a case of opposites attracting. Denna has a very feminine personality and really embraced her position as a princess, while also wanting to be actively involved in the political issues that the two kingdoms were dealing with throughout the book. Personally, I really like that Denna wanted to have an active role in helping the two kingdoms with their problems, or at the very least she at least wanted to know what was going on with the kingdoms’ political problems; rather than remain in the dark about everything that was going on. Denna wasn’t a person who was perfectly content with just sitting around and only doing what was most likely expected of women who’re in her position. Aside from Denna having magical powers that she was forced to hide from everybody, Denna wanting to get involved with helping her kingdom deal with their political problems was something that I felt made her a really interesting character.

Mare, on the other hand, had a more masculine personality that reminded me a lot of Arya Stark from the TV show Game of Thrones, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series that the show is based on. Since Arya Stark is one of my top favorite characters, both on Game of Thrones, and in the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, I love that Coulthurst’s writing for Mare felt very reminiscent of Arya Stark in some ways. Personally, I thought that it was really interesting and cool that unlike Denna, Mare rejected the idea of being a princess, and doing the kind of the things that princesses and girls in general from her society were typically expected to do. When it comes to Denna and Mare’s relationship, the fact that they’re so different from each other definitely added an incredibly interesting element to both their relationship, and the book as a whole that I really enjoyed; especially since their differences were the main thing that fueled the initial hostility and tension that existed between them when they first met. The fact that Denna and Mare were total opposites for the most part created a lot of great storytelling opportunities that I think Coulthurst did a great job of utilizing throughout the book.

The friendship that Mare had with Nils was also a lot of fun to read about, and I wish that Nils had been featured in the book more, mostly because he was definitely my favorite secondary character in the book. That being said, I also think that Nils could have been fleshed out just a little bit more as a character. While I loved the relationship between Mare and Nils, I was admittedly a little confused about what Mare and Nils’ respective sexual orientations were. Sometimes it seemed like Coulthurst was trying to portray them both as technically being gay, without ever explicitly establishing if that were indeed the case; and other times, I kind of felt like Coulthurst was trying to hint at the idea that were some romantic feelings that existed between them. That left me wondering if Mare and Nils could possibly be considered bisexual. Personally, a part of me would have liked for there to have been just a little bit more clarification regarding Mare and Nils’ respective sexual orientations; because I think it could have helped me to have a better understanding of both their relationship, and of Mare and Nils as individual characters. That being said, I do like the fact that there were times throughout the book where Coulthurst’s writing for both Mare and Nils made them come across as possibly having some shades of gray to their sexuality. Being bisexual myself, I personally really liked the idea of things not being purely black and white when it came to Denna, Mare and Nils’ respective sexual orientations.

One thing that really surprised me about Of Fire and Stars in general was how little Mare’s brother, Thandi, was actually featured in the book. Given the fact that Denna and Thandi were going to marry each other, and Thandi was also Mare’s brother, I really felt like he should have had more of a presence in Of Fire and Stars than he did. While I liked Thandi at the beginning of the book, a big part of me feels like he ultimately ended up coming across as being more of a plot device than an actual, fully developed character. I felt like he pretty much seemed to only show up whenever Coulthurst wanted to create some drama between Denna and Mare, and the rest of the time he was nowhere to be seen; and his existence in the book wasn’t really acknowledged all that much. That being said, when it comes to the brother/sister relationship between Thandi and Mare, I love that Coulthurst made it clear that Thandi disapproved of how Mare chose to live her life, and objected to the fact that she spends a lot of time taking care of her horses; and how that all factored into their rather strained relationship. Initially, there was a small part of me that felt kind of bad for him, because I figured that he was quite possibly going to end up getting hurt, emotionally, in the end; since I knew that it was pretty much a guarantee that Denna and Mare were going to end up together. However, I lost all sympathy for him when I saw how he reacted to finding out about the romance between Denna and Mare. He pretty much immediately became an unsympathetic villain once he found out about Denna and Mare’s relationship.

The slow-burn progression of Denna and Mare’s relationship throughout the book is something that I felt Coulthurst handled very well. As somebody who loves to read a lot of books that are either a part of the romance genre, or they simply heavily involve romance (Both YA books and books geared towards adults), it was very refreshing to read a YA love story that wasn’t plagued with a case of insta-love where Denna and Mare meet each other for the first time, and they’re professing their love for each other; and are both renting the medieval equivalent of a U-Haul five minutes later. I absolutely love that it wasn’t until it was pretty far into the book that Denna and Mare, individually, even started to realize that they had feelings for each other. Given the unique nature of this story and what Denna and Mare’s situation was, namely that as far as I understood, they were both women who most likely had never been attracted to other women prior to meeting each other; I definitely think that it would have been incredibly detrimental to the book as a whole if Coulthurst had rushed the development of Denna and Mare’s relationship. I’m so glad that Coulthurst didn’t do that, and it really was very refreshing to read a YA book where the love story between the two main characters doesn’t come across as being incredibly rushed.

Usually having the central plot of a book move at a very slow pace, which in this case was Denna and Mare falling in love with each other, can oftentimes be very frustrating, and I can start to lose interest in the plot after a while if the plot moves at a slow pace. Thankfully, there was enough going on in the book to keep readers interested and engaged in the plot. In addition to the slow-burn romance between Denna and Mare, there was also a lot of political intrigue throughout the book, since Denna was supposed to marry Thandi as a part of an alliance between their two kingdoms. Plus, there was also the fact that people who have magical powers were discriminated against in Denna’s kingdom, which was a major problem for Denna since she possesses magical powers of her own; so she was constantly having to worry about keeping her magical powers a secret from everybody. Personally, I thought the way Coulthurst handled the fact that Denna had magical powers that she was forced to hide from people, but at the same time she didn’t always have complete control of her powers, was really interesting. It also felt very reminiscent of the movie Frozen, and I really liked that particular aspect of the book, because I’m a huge fan of Frozen.

The whole thing with the rebel group known as the Recusants, who were staging a political uprising in the kingdom of Mynaria, was something that I thought was rather interesting. That being said, while I thought that the parts of the book involving the Recusants were all very interesting, I do think that Coulthurst should have given some more backstory about them, namely how the group began. I also think that she could have done a better job of providing a more solid resolution to that particular subplot. The book definitely ended without there really being any kind of concrete resolution to the subplot involving the Recusants.

As much as I loved Of Fire and Stars, and I thought that the book had a ton of interesting and exciting elements to it that kept me invested and engaged in the book from beginning to end; one recurring problem that I think this book has is that a lot of those elements, which ultimately pretty much all tie into the world-building in this book, lack depth and development. For example, it’s mentioned several times throughout the book that the religion the characters believe in involves six gods, but we’re not really given very much information about their religion beyond that. I also think that Coulthurst could have done a slightly better job of fleshing out the backstory and origins of Denna’s powers, especially since Denna having magical powers plays such a significant role in the book as a whole. Coulthurst unfortunately doesn’t really provide any solid answers regarding Denna’s powers, namely, are they something that runs in her family, or is she the first person in her family that they know of that has magical powers of any kind? It was definitely rather frustrating to me that we never really get any answers to those questions. That being said, the world that Of Fire and Stars takes place in might not be the most elaborately developed setting for a fantasy book to take place in, but at the same time; it’s still a fascinating setting for a book to take place in.

When it comes to what I didn’t like about Of Fire and Stars writing-wise, I honestly don’t have a lot of complaints other than the ones that I’ve already mentioned. The one other complaint that I have about the writing of the book itself is that while I love that this book has a happy ending for Denna and Mare, it definitely bothered me that the ending of the book felt incredibly rushed. Plus, it also let me with a few unanswered questions regarding what was going to happen with the alliance between Denna and Mare/Thandi’s kingdoms since Denna and Thandi weren’t going to be getting married after all. Personally, I wish that Coulthurst had provided some solid resolution for that aspect of the plot.

Personally, I really wish that Coulthurst had included a pronunciation guide for the characters’ names, because most of the characters in the book had rather unusual names where the correct pronunciations of their names wasn’t obvious simply by looking at them. I’m really glad that pretty much all of the main characters that were featured throughout the book went by shortened versions of their names that were easier to pronounce.

Finally, this might sound like a rather strange complaint to have about any book, but it really bothered me that the size of the font in the book seemed to be pretty small compared to the size of the font in the majority of other books that I’ve read over the years. Even when I wore my reading glasses, the size of the font in the book seemed rather small and difficult to read without really straining my eyes as I was reading Of Fire and Stars. Since I’m not an expert on the publication and printing process of books, I don’t know who’s ultimately responsible for deciding the particular font they use for a book, as well as who decides the font size for a book; but I really wish the size of the font that was used for Of Fire and Stars was just a little bit bigger, so it would be easier for people to read.

All in all, while there are definitely aspects of this book that could have been executed better, namely the world-building and the backstory behind Denna’s powers, Of Fire and Stars is, in my opinion, still a great book that I absolutely loved for the most part. The way Coulthurst handled the development of Denna and Mare’s relationship was perfect in my opinion, which is definitely a great thing since their relationship is arguably the most important part of the book. While the romance genre is definitely one of my favorite genres of books to read, I’ve often found YA romances to be rather hit or miss; but this book is definitely a hit. I would even go as far as saying that despite Of Fire and Stars’ flaws, it’s definitely the best YA love story that I’ve ever read.

As I was reading Of Fire and Stars, one recurring thought that I had about the book was that I really wish that it had been around when I was a teenager, and I was in the process of very slowly coming to terms with my bisexuality. I really think that reading Of Fire and Stars during that period of time in my life could have been very comforting and uplifting for me. I’m so glad that today’s LGBT teens have this book to read, and I hope that reading Of Fire and Stars will help teenagers who might be struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality.

Denna and Mare are definitely both really great, well written characters; and the way Coulthurst handled the writing for their relationship throughout the book was simply phenomenal. The way Denna and Mare’s relationship was written was incredibly refreshing compared to the writing for a lot of the other YA love stories that are out there; which unfortunately are oftentimes more frustrating than they’re well done, and enjoyable to read, based on my own experiences with reading YA love stories. The slow-burn progression of Denna and Mare’s relationship, and the overall pacing of the plot of the book as a whole was handled perfectly for the most part, in my opinion. Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King continues to be my favorite book that I’ve received from OwlCrate, but Of Fire and Stars is definitely my second favorite OwlCrate book of the month that I’ve received so far. I’m definitely a fan of Audrey Coulthurst’s writing after reading Of Fire and Stars, and I’m very excited to see what she comes up with for her next book.

All that being said, my final score for Of Fire and Stars is 8 out of 10.

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