Review: Starswept by Mary Fan
I received this book in exchange for an honest review.
Content Warning: Ableism.
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In 2157, the Adryil—an advanced race of telepathic humanoids—contacted Earth. A century later, 15-year-old violist Iris Lei considers herself lucky to attend Papilio, a prestigious performing arts school powered by their technology. Born penniless, Iris’s one shot at a better life is to attract an Adryil patron. But only the best get hired, and competition is fierce.
A sudden encounter with an Adryil boy upends her world. Iris longs to learn about him and his faraway realm, but after the authorities arrest him for trespassing, the only evidence she has of his existence is the mysterious alien device he slipped to her.
When she starts hearing his voice in her head, she wonders if her world of backstabbing artists and pressure for perfection is driving her insane. Then, she discovers that her visions of him are real—by way of telepathy—and soon finds herself lost in the kind of impossible love she depicts in her music.
But even as their bond deepens, Iris realizes that he’s hiding something from her—and it’s dangerous. Her quest for answers leads her past her sheltered world to a strange planet lightyears away, where she uncovers secrets about Earth’s alien allies that shatter everything she knows
Starswept by Mary Fan is an exciting read. If you like YA sci-fi about music and love, with a non-white lead character, then this book is for you.
Why You Should Read This Book
Half of the novel is set in Papilio, a super fancy school that trains kids to be Artists. They’re all placed on a rating system and the higher your rating, the more likely it is that you’ll be chosen for a job on Adrye. Competition in the school is fierce and not many kids get placements. In this world there’s essentially no middle class: you either get a job on Adrye or you end up as a labourer working to pay off your debt to the school. There is a stark contrast between Papilio and Dogwood, the town outside the school. Papilio has these amazing (and very expensive looking) buildings and access to the latest technology. Meanwhile, Dogwood is dilapidated, the residents can’t afford to use the latest technology, and what they do have seems to not have advanced past 2017. Dogwood is a brutal reminder to the students of what awaits them if they fail.
The other half of the book is set on Adrye and, without spoiling too much, the world is shown to be a colourful place from the buildings to the fashion. However, there’s a certain coldness and distance from the general Adryil which is only contrasted with and highlighted by their vibrant world.
The entire novel is shown through Iris: an East Asian teen, viola player, and all around smol teen. She starts off the novel as a starry-eyed kid and is taken on a whirlwind journey where she begins to question her school and she discovers the realities of her world. Iris is hard-working, has an inner strength, and fights for what she wants. She’s often scared, but when it comes down to it, she does when she believes to be right. This makes her into a believable and relatable character.
Iris’s love interest in the novel is Dámiul. I didn’t trust him at first, but as I got to know him, he grew on me. He’s a mysterious alien from another word so, of course, Iris falls for him. Some people may not like this because it’s “instalove,” but I understood why Iris and Dámiul fell for each other: they both needed something to hold onto, and they just happened to find each other.
Iris’s best friend is Milo, who is a ballet dancer. Through his character, we see how Papilio chews up kids and spits them out. He’s the epitome of the “that’s rough buddy” meme as he struggles and fails to meet the level of excellence that will get him a job on Adrye. Aside from that, there was the potential for there to be a love-triangle as Milo is attracted to Iris. I’m really glad that it was made clear early on that Iris is not attracted to Milo romantically; she’s his platonic friend and he’s her rock.
There are also some notable side-characters throughout the novel. One of those is Estelle and she does everything in her power to keep her high rank within the school. She could have easily been written off as the Nasty Female Side-Character, but she’s not. As the novel progresses, we get to understand how truly cut-throat the school is and how Estelle feels that she must do everything she can to pull herself out of poverty by getting a job. This is one of the novels greatest strengths: it doesn’t undercut its female characters by writing them off as one-note characters. They’re rounded out into actual people and it’s a pleasure to read.
Starswept hits its stride when characters perform, whether that is dancing or playing music. Iris truly shines when she plays the viola. However, in places, there could have been more description. Sometimes there were silent pauses of contemplation where more description could have been added to stretch out those pauses and allow the reader to feel them. Also, this is a nit-picky thing of mine, too many sentences about Iris’s inner monologue contained rhetorical questions. A few of these are fine, but they become noticeable after a while and they took me out of the novel.
All In All
Starswept by Mary Fan is a book you’re going to want to get your hands on. The world building is amazing, you’ll love and love to hate the characters, and use of language elevates the novel, despite it faltering at times.