Fandom has recently come to celebrate the month of February as Femslash February—an open call to all ficcers, vidders, and other creative participants to make fanworks that feature women who love women. Usually this is the month when I try to find a good femslash fic or two to read and rec, but I’m kind of in between fandoms right now, and I didn’t know where to start. Fortunately, though I didn’t find a fanwork, I did stumble across Of Fire and Stars, a YA novel by Audrey Coulthurst that was surprisingly about two princesses who fall in love with each other. Although I didn’t love all of it, the queer romance at the heart of this book was incredible and definitely deserves a rec.
Minor spoilers after the jump!
The first princess of our couple is Princess Dennaleia of Havemont, a bookish girl who’s been betrothed to the prince of Mynaria for as long as she can remember. At the start of the novel, she’s on her way to his kingdom to meet him for the first time, but the first of the royal family to make an impression on Denna is instead our second protagonist, the prince’s sister Amaranthine. Princess Amaranthine—or, as she prefers, Mare—is a prickly, streetwise lady who has no intention of marrying and instead is eager to spend more time on the horses of the royal stable than on learning to be a suitable princess. As Mynaria is known for its horses and Denna has no idea how to ride, Mare is assigned the task of teaching her. Their hesitant friendship is changed into something more intimate when one of the royal family is assassinated, and Mare and Denna must work together to solve the mystery before Mynaria goes to war with the wrong country.
Of Fire and Stars has a lot going on. It’s an average-sized book, but Coulthurst crams the world’s magical system, political system, Denna’s and Mare’s families and beliefs, and more into its 400 pages. As such, while the world Coulthurst has created is spectacular, it doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it could have been. For example, one of the many conflicts in the book is magic-related. Mynaria is prejudiced against magic and magic-users—though we never find out why—and riots erupt in the streets when it becomes common knowledge that one of Mynaria’s royal family was assassinated by magic. This is a particular problem for Denna, because she’s had an Affinity for fire since she was very young. She’s been ignoring it, hoping it will go away on its own, but instead, ever since she’s come to Mynaria, it seems to be getting stronger. We learn a little about Affinities and magic and how they work as Denna learns, but we ultimately don’t find out enough about this to satisfy the number of questions that are raised by this conflict.
This is a similar theme in Of Fire and Stars’s other conflicts. Coulthurst takes homophobia out of her world—Mare and Denna both meet, discuss, and support people in same-sex relationships—but the book remains unclear on how this developed in a world with royalty who are determined to have biological children (in fact, biological children becomes a major plot point later on). A lord from another country, Lord Kriantz of Sonneborne, briefly discusses his country’s difficulties in progressing towards a monarchical style of government like Mynaria has, but we never see his country or hear more about it despite this also becoming an important plot point later in the book. It almost felt as though Of Fire and Stars should have been several books rather than just one book, because while I liked the sketched-out worldbuilding we got, I would have liked to see some things developed more. Perhaps this is just my way of saying I need a sequel!
Here’s a thing I never expected to be an issue: the writing of the male characters. At times it almost seemed like the author was going out of her way to flip the gendered trope of male leads and female side characters—pretty much every male character can be described in terms of their relationship to a woman. There’s Mare’s brother, Prince Thandimilion, her father King Aturnicus, and her friend Nils, who helps her sneak out of the castle to get information; there’s Denna’s royal adviser and the strange man who ultimately tells her about her magic. On the one hand, it was fascinating to see the reverse of this trope; I kept wondering when the male characters were going to get character development and character arcs of their own, like the women were getting. On the other hand, tropes are tropes for a reason; the male characters remaining static meant that they could not add to the book’s themes, and in the particular case of Prince Thandimilion, it meant that Coulthurst missed out on a great opportunity to have him grow and confront his anti-magic prejudices and his previous failures as a leader. Instead, Mare throws these in his face at the end of the book, and he just kind of accepts them. (Unfortunately, the book did not have any nonbinary, trans, or genderqueer characters to further subvert this trope.)
But of course, the meat of the book was the relationship between Denna and Mare, and I’m pleased to report that Of Fire and Stars was excellent in this regard. The two of them start off with a completely wrong impression of each other—Mare thinks Denna is a useless book nerd who only cares about the formalities and the frippery of being a princess, and Denna thinks that Mare doesn’t care about her princess-y duties at all and is being irresponsible by only training Mynaria’s horses. However, they slowly come to recognize these supposed flaws as strengths. Mare finds that all of Denna’s book knowledge is quickly and practically applicable to her investigation of the assassination, and Denna finds that Mare’s standoffish nature is born of years of having her opinions and ideas on how to help Mynaria ignored by her brother and father. The culmination of their relationship was enormously moving.
Denna’s development as a lead character was especially well-written. While Mare is shown to love both men and women, Denna has never had a crush on anyone in her life; she’s devoted to the idea of duty and the knowledge that she is betrothed to another is enough for her until she comes to Mynaria and meets Mare. Homophobia isn’t a thing in this universe, so it’s Denna’s own sense of duty that she must fight against. Should she be dutiful to Prince Thandimilion, who can hardly see Denna’s intelligence and wants her to simply help with the royal correspondence and host parties, but whose marriage will cement an alliance for their two countries? Or should she accept that with Mare, Denna can finally live the life that she’s prepared for—one with both intellectual and emotional fulfillment?
I found Denna’s slow realization that she loved women to be immensely realistic. Denna keeps finding more and more excuses to hang out with Mare even outside of her horseback riding lessons and the assassination investigation, and just as her Affinity keeps escaping her and becoming noticeable, so too does her love for Mare. Both eventually grow too powerful to be controlled, and Denna finally forsakes her duty and accepts both her Affinity and her relationship.
While it had some missteps, Of Fire and Stars ultimately showcased a loving and dynamic relationship between its two female leads, all wrapped up in a magically and politically intriguing plot. There doesn’t yet appear to be any news about a sequel, but it will have a prequel next year that will hopefully talk more about the magic of this world! Until then, be sure to check out Of Fire and Stars at your local bookstore or library.
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Hm, I actually didn’t find the romance super convincing — or that is to say, I didn’t find the setup of it super convincing. Mare just seemed *mean* beyond what the narrative seemed to acknowledge, and I guess it’s not just m/f where I find that disconcerting.
I find Sherwood Smith to have a fairly interesting take on the whole succession thing alongside same-sex or same-gender love — her ‘verse includes magic that can grant a child to devoted lovers who are otherwise unable to conceive. Among other things.
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