Series: The Manifold Worlds #1
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: August 2nd 2016 (ebook/US print); August 4th 2016 (UK print)
This edition: NetGalley ARC
Cover art: Julie Dillon
When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.
There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex’Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.
Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.
Can one girl – an accidental worldwalker – really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?
OK, so. In news that will surprise nobody, I read a lot of books. So far this year I’ve read a lot of books that have won my heart, delighted me, and/or made me think. I’ve read books that have made me think so hard that I’m still doing it days, sometimes weeks, after I finish. What’s really rare for me at this point is finding a book that does all of those things. A book that I can cherish as being exactly the kind of fantasy story I wish there was more of, that I wish more authors aspired to write, because it’s just that good.
An Accident of Stars is one of those rare books. Now bear with me, because I have things I want to say about this and it’s probably going to be difficult not to simply flail and cry all over my corner of the Internet in the attempt.
(I FUCKING LOVE THIS BOOK OMG)
An Accident Of Stars stands head and fabulous shoulders above most fantasy books I’ve read, not just this year but in recent years – certainly in the time I’ve been writing about books here. It does that because it feels genuinely fresh, invigorating and thoroughly enjoyable even as it’s tackling the status quo and being exactly the kind of on-point example of good feminist writing you’d expect if you’re familiar with Foz herself.
What I find most invigorating, and absolutely enjoyable – commendable, even – isn’t so much the story, the worldbuilding or the characters (all marvellously, matter-of-factly diverse). Those are wonderful elements, don’t get me wrong. It’s the approach taken to them that gets me, as well as the way the story’s setup unfolds into that worldbuilding, and into character building. That character building is what drives the story forward, and it’s delightfully clear to see that Foz has a solid grasp of what makes really good drama: real stakes, real world issues, and the real people who deal with them. It presents the reader with a world in which dangerous things can and do happen, but then shows us that it’s possible to have all that drama unfold and be resolved (or at least handled) in a way that doesn’t have to leave absolutely everybody either dead or despairing. It shuts the door on grimdark, and gives us instead a story that’s every bit as tense and nerve-wracking, and even shocking in the right places, without ever crawling into that particular hopelessly murky pit.
People can be awful. They can even be evil. But people are always more than that; they can also be kind. Nobody is perfect – and it’s the fact that we can and do make mistakes and errors in judgement that sets this particular story up to be told in the first place. But what really struck me is that, even when the situation might be grim, and the prospects dark, it’s people who bring light and hope to it.
Take Saffron’s experiences upon ending up in a completely different world to her own. In her own world, she’s bitter about her ongoing harrassment at the hands of a schoolmate, and the lack of any consequences dealt by their teachers or school staff for his treatment of her. Nobody sees what’s going on until Gwen, on a cross-world mission, does exactly that and intervenes. This leads Saffron to follow her when she goes back through a portal to where she came from, and as you’d expect from a portal fantasy story, the world Saffron ends up in is utterly unlike her own.
There, she’s taken seriously when she expresses herself. She’s listened to when she speaks, and cared for when she’s hurt. She suffers grievous, disabling injuries, and instead of being forced to deal with it all on her own, she is immediately taken into the fold of a caring group of people and nursed back to health. Gwen recognises the consequences of Saffron being there, and she faces them by actively seeking to protect her. Not only that, but she does so by answering questions and providing information for Saffron to parse on her own, instead of simply sheltering her or hiding her away and assuming she knows best. The others in Gwen’s camp are (mostly) welcoming of her. Rather than facing suspicion, superstitious dread or wariness, Saffron finds comfort, safe space and even friendship (and more besides).
What a notion it would be for our world leaders and our communities to take such views on how to treat those in need.
And the effect this has on Saffron is profound. Like a modern-day Dorothy, Saffron is not in Kansas anymore – but unlike Dorothy, she finds what she needs most in her own version of Oz. This is what makes everything that follows so gripping – the threats are more ominous and the tension rises higher, because what’s at stake for Saffron doesn’t involve heroics or magic or saving the world. What’s in the balance for her is the chance to make it home again at all – and what she has to face is making the decision about whether or not she wants to. In secondary-world fantasy terms, these are small stakes. But on a personal level? Not much could be more important.
Saving the world happens in fantasy novels all the time. Saving the damsel, too. What we need more of is the kind of story where the “damsel” is helped to save herself – and left to decide how best to do it. I could go on at even greater length about the fantasy trappings of this particular story, because make no mistake – they are every bit as thrilling and interesting as what I’ve written about here. Even if all you’re after is a good fantasy romp, this book is worthwhile. But if what you really crave is a familiar story told in delightfully fresh ways, you’ll be hard pressed to find one that delivers more. An Accident Of Stars is an absolute treasure, and I’m pleased beyond words that I gave it a chance. If you feel like you need more safe spaces in your fantasy reading, you need this in your life too.