Familiar Story in Android Skin
[Wait, something about androids and spaceships on a fantasy blog? Occasionally we need to nod to space opera—fantasy’s lovechild with scifi—and Defy the Stars is the YA version. Skip if you’re luddite-only.]
Claudia Gray’s Defy the Stars opens with a bang: Noemi Vidal, war orphan on a rebel planet, watches helpless as her half-sister and only friend dies in the middle of an epic battle. And just as she’s about to kill one of androids Earth used to do it, the thing mentions there might be a way to save her planet from ever fighting Earth again.
Cut to the android’s perspective: special project of the genius whose androids changed the worlds, he has been locked in a disabled spaceship for thirty years, and out of sheer loneliness (the first of many emotions he learns to feel) takes an enemy soldier to be his new master.
From there the two embark on a dangerous and fast-paced mission through all four of Earth’s colony worlds to try to collect the pieces needed for the android’s plan. Along the way, they learn a lot about themselves, and each other, and end up forging a relationship despite differences in politics and prejudice.
Sound familiar? It is--Defy the Stars is a great YA space-opera romantic thriller, hitting all the right notes at exactly the right time. The fact that those notes form a familiar melody can be something of a detriment (can you think of another YA about an oppressed girl fighting for the freedom of her people in a hierarchical society who gets caught between love and war?), but only if you’re going into it looking for novelty. If you’re looking for the next fix in your Hunger Games-Divergent-Red Queen reading list, this book will do nicely.
That’s not to say there’s nothing original about it: Noemi’s home world is religious, and Gray actually has her character take religion and matters of faith seriously. Their intersection with politics and prejudice around the humanity of androids makes an illuminating backdrop for the more interesting of the two character journeys, the android’s coming to realize he can experience emotions, disagree with his masters, and ultimately that he has as much right to be called human as anyone else. While Trekkies will decry ‘Data! Data!’ for the first half of the book (especially if you listen to the audio, in which the male narrator goes a little too hard on the robot accent), Gray’s android goes further than that, and while the eventual romantic tone feels familiar, there’s a reason we return to the same themes. Sometimes you just want a beloved story in new skin.
Defy the Stars isn’t a perfect rendition, though—the last third of the story starts to feel a little forced, with characters meeting a little too coincidentally, taking risks they don’t seem totally motivated to, on a quest that feels forced for the sake of the romantic subplot. If you’re a plausibility hound, or need your characters to always do the smartest thing, you might get annoyed a few times toward the end. And for epic fantasy lovers, the worldbuilding might feel a little shallow, but in a book this short, with this quick a pacing (YA, in other words), you can’t ask for much more.
And for all the rest of you, who might enjoy a familiar romantic and rebellious story dressed up in shiny android skin, Defy the Stars is well-worth a plane ride read.
A World of Severus Snapes
There is a line these days in fantasy, between unabashedly European settings (often with outdated racial and sexual politics) and those that try to get farther afield (for example, Django Wexler or Ken Liu). Ever since Robert Jordan codified the European setting Tolkien popularized, it’s been hard to write a Europeanesque setting without falling back on tired tropes—but Jeff Wheeler pulls it off in The Queen’s Poisoner. Historically based on the War of Roses (also Martin’s worldbuilding muse for Game of Thrones), the book boasts a deeper political history than you often see (especially with young protagonists), a unique (if nebulous) magic system, and a narrative focused enough on the internal life of the protagonist that the externally-familiar setting doesn’t steal too much from the story’s appeal.
So what's the story about, if not a gallant knight/farmboy/hobbit going to defeat a dragon/Forsaken/undead warlock? It’s about a rebel nobleman’s son getting sent as hostage to an upstart king, and learning to survive (and eventually, to vindicate his politically-imperiled family) in a hostile castle. The protagonist is young, and though he gets a lot of help from the book’s namesake poisoner, as well as a plucky female friend reminiscent of Scarlett from Steamboy, much of the delight in this story is his gradual coming to age and confidence in his difficult setting.
Wheeler has a delicate feel for character, and there are good-on-the-inside Snapes of various sizes in The Queen's Poisoner, from outwardly-evil to minorly-sinister to just-annoying, all of whom end up being trustworthy in one way or another. Of course, there are a couple actually-evil characters too—and the hero’s journey here is learning to decipher who is who, beneath the mask, an internal journey his friend the poisoner helps him with (and seems to be tied to his burgeoning magical skills). It’s a fairly unique character arc for a fantasy novel, and the drama that comes with him reacting to, then burrowing beneath, the skin of variously antagonistic characters to find their true colors makes for a fun read.
That said, TQP still falls flat in a few places. While Owen’s hijinks and coming of age around the castle is fun, the plot feels fairly episodic until the last quarter, which sort of forces a climax and resolution on an unwilling protagonist. That is the other weak link in the book—though young protagonists (see early Harry Potter) can’t be expected to get everything done under their own power, Owen spends the book quite withdrawn, shy, and reactive, relying almost entirely on friends to help him out of trouble, and to drive him to action. Coming-of-age stories often start this way, but to our tastes TQP stayed that way a little too long.
So, Queen’s Poisoner, worth a read? Yes—the pacing is quick, the characters fun, the worldbuilding deepish, and the story unusual among fantasy novels. Check it out especially if you are a fan of younger protagonists or coming of age stories; if heroic/active characters and tight plotting are more your wheelhouse, though, you might want to read the kindle sample first.
: Not to mention those that change the field so thoroughly it’s hard to place them as anywhere (see Brandon Sanderson or NK Jemisin)
: Or a fan of audiobooks--this one's 1.99!