By Kerstin Hall
I received an ARC of Star Eater from Macmillan-Tor/Forge in exchange for an honest review.
Between Kerstin Hall’s fiendish and demented novella The Border Keeper and a synopsis which includes phrases such as “the Sisterhood of Aytrium’s magical bloodline,” “shadowy cabal,” and “phantasmagorical indictment of hereditary power,” I don’t believe I was misguided in expecting something, at the very least, unconventional from Star Eater. This is a book about, to put it in the bluntest terms possible, queer cannibal nuns who live on a floating island and wield magical lace like Spider-Man’s webs—and if they have sex with a male-bodied person, that person turns into an immortal vampire/zombie-type monster called a Haunt. It sounds like Gideon the Ninth with a sprinkling of The Divine Comedy, and that’s exactly what I want from Kerstin Hall. But the most unconventional aspect of Star Eater, given its wild worldbuilding, is its startling conventionality.
Star Eater follows Elfreda Raughn (spoiler: she’s Special™), a member of the Sisterhood who becomes embroiled in political intrigue when she begins working as a spy. Said intrigue is not particularly intriguing—there’s no reason to be invested in any of the characters involved, and the plot is pushed forward by convenience rather than competence. I knew things were going wrong, storytelling-wise, when Elfreda began coming across crucial information by accidentally overhearing it (can we please retired this tired trope?), and it never gets better. Twists land with a thud and dramatic reveals warrant not much more than a shrug.
Hall’s writing, both in dialogue and description, is equally flat. Every character speaks like an early 21st-century person and it constantly clashes with the world established by Star Eater, which prevented me from ever becoming immersed in the story. The prose sparks to life only when it flirts with horror, and that doesn’t happen enough in a world featuring vampire/zombie monsters (I will acknowledge that restraint is effective when writing horror, but Hall swings too far in the other direction; Star Eater is too restrained, especially given that The Border Keeper proved what Hall is capable of when she pulls out all the stops).
Star Eater also leans far too heavily on a romance which straight-up does not work. Elfreda and Finn have precisely zero chemistry, and the story relies on that chemistry to succeed. (Also, if your mythology or magic system in any way intersects with gender or sexuality, you have to address what is happening with trans/non-binary characters. The Wheel of Time was incepted in the ‘90s, so whatever, but now it’s 2021 and there’s no excuse for reinforcing the gender binary.) There’s good stuff here: the world is inventive and induces the occasional shiver when flavored with horror. But the building blocks of storytelling are broken in this book—Elfreda may live on a floating landmass, but Star Eater simply can’t stay airborne.
Review by Erin Larson
Star Eater will be published June 22nd, 2021.