Sixteen-year-old Saffron Coulter’s life is changed forever when she witnesses a strange woman she met a few hours ago enter a giant portal leading god-knows-where. Almost unthinkingly Saffron follows and finds herself in a whole new world. This strange woman, Gwen, is originally from Earth but years ago became a worldwalker and made this world and its country of Kena her home.
Kena is in the midst of political turmoil. To Gwen’s eternal regret, she supported a candidate for the thorne who turned out to be a backstabbing tyrant. Now Gwen and the group of rebels she belongs to have laid their sights on forming an alliance with the neighboring country of Veksh, whose government is rife with its own set of tensions and factions. Immediately thrust into a bewildering landscape of magic, politics, and religion, Saffron comes to play an integral role in determining Kena’s future. But at what cost? And what price will she have to pay upon the day she returns home?
An Accident of Stars reads as a traditional portal fantasy set in a secondary world setting that wouldn’t be out of place from something written in the eighties that’s been refitted with a whole new set of values deliberately departing from those in eighties stories. Most significant are the overwhelmingly female cast, the overt and subtle flips in gender roles (Veksh is a matriarchal society, and the two supporting Kenan male characters are characterized in-universe by their looks and charm or lack thereof), white skin as an outlier, unremarked-upon same-sex relationships, and fundamentally polyamorous Kenan marriages. Also present are three intriguing religious orders—the Vekshi have the most magical and flametastic religion (DRAGONS), but my favorite are the Shavaktiin, fully-robed priests who believe that their job is to help the universe along in its Great Story, with themselves acting as anonymous, interchangeable helpers.
Lacking in the world-building is any mention of Kenan and Vekshi society outside those of the nobility, rulers, and religious orders (as all the characters aside from Saffron and Gwen are either members or former members of one or more of those categories), or anything about an economy. Without a greater understanding of the strata of Kena’s people, I found it difficult to care about deposing Leoden. Yes, he stole the throne, but he’s so far restricted his tyranny to stamping out nobles who opposed his ascendency and stealing people from the priesthood. It’s not clear what his rule actually looks like from the perspective of an average Kenan, or whether an average Kenan actually cares who sits on the throne or not, so long as they don’t starve or have their homes or livelihoods destroyed. In contrast, the portrayal of Vekshi politics was more engaging, largely because Vekshi politics consist of powerful, elderly bald women threatening each other with sharp words and pointy objects.
As a protagonist, Saffron was a bit of a blank slate, but I appreciated both her inner strength and her realistic responses to shock and trauma. I loved that Saffron’s portal-fantasy experience is simultaneously wonderful (she’s in a whole new world! With magic! And different peoples and cultures!) and terrible (injuries and physical violence and murder are only some of the trials she faces), and that she herself characterizes it as such. I also liked Zech, an exile Vekshi child who’s quick and clever and dares to do the impossible. Overall I loved the inter-character dynamics in which even those at odds with each other provide support, comfort, and protection whenever needed, and that characters care for each other’s physical and emotional health equally.
Something I want to make note of is my ambivalence about Gwen’s stated aromanticism, which is mentioned once early on and then never again. On the one hand, yay obviously-stated-in-text aro character! There is value in casual-inclusion-as-normalization. On the other, that’s all it amounts to—an in-text statement. As an aro individual, my aro-ness is a fundamental filter through which I view and understand both my relationships with other people and other people’s relationships with each other. Gwen’s aromanticism is included in the context of her relationship with her husband and wife, that they love her and she loves them (platonically). Which is a cool inclusion, but if Gwen hadn’t been characterized as aromantic, if the narrative had alternatively let the reader assume she was a romantically-inclined individual, nothing would change about Gwen’s character, and that passage wouldn’t have suffered from the absence.
Regarding queer representation, writing aro (and ace) characters is different from writing characters with other queer identities because being aro or ace is primarily characterized by *lack* of something the majority of people experience. It’s easy for that lack to easily be ignored or forgotten in-narrative because there’s nothing visibly different to distinguish characters as different from the norm in that particular way. (In contrast to the single mention of Gwen’s aromanticism, Saffron’s bisexuality is stated, and she kisses a girl later on). Glossing over that lack becomes an even greater issue when aro characters are in portrayed relationships—it’s tempting to gloss over hard questions of what it may mean for an aro character to be “in a relationship,” especially if that relationship outwardly appears to be romantic. In sum, it’s objectively nice that Gwen is labeled aro in-text, but I don’t know if I’d count Gwen as an example of aromantic representation when all it amounts to is the one mention. (I’m holding out hope book 2.)
My final issue has nothing to do with the actual writing and everything to do with whoever copyedited/proofread the manuscript prior to release. The interior abounds with typographical errors and egregious jamming together of POV sections with nothing delineating the change, and I found at least two major word errors a decent proofreader should have noticed.
Clocking in at approximately 500 pages, An Accident of Stars is an engrossing read, and the pace never sags once. Although I remain only marginally invested in the actual conflict of the book, I want to see how Saffron, Gwen, and the rest of the cast will continue to forge personal and political relationships in order to resolve said conflict. Also I love the world-building—it made me feel nostalgic for all the questionable-quality epic fantasies I read in high school, in the best way. If anyone is looking for an epic fantasy with an old-school vibe that has a more modern approach to societal world-building, An Accident of Stars is worth looking into. I’ll keep my eye out for when the sequel A Tyranny of Queens pubs in May.