An Accident of Stars is the third novel from award-winning Australian essayist, blogger, reviewer, poet and author Foz Meadows. What starts out feeling like a pretty standard Portal Fantasy develops quickly into a compelling tale of intrigue, mystery, and drama with a great and diverse cast of characters, and fantastic and aspirational world-building. Having struggled so far this year to find the time and dedication to commit to reading that I have in the past, I nevertheless burned through An Accident of Stars in essentially two days. This is a great piece of writing.
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?
I’m always leery of Portal Fantasy for a couple reasons. Aside from the usual ‘white savior’ issues with taking predominantly white predominantly male characters and dumping them into a world where they almost always turn out to be some kind of chosen one or otherwise nearly instant major player in world events, most Portal Fantasy fails to take into account just how generally useless any modern human would be in a medieval setting. We’re not used to serious physical labour, definitely have no pointful training in survival, orienteering, combat, horseback riding, learning foreign languages, or any of the host of other things that have traditionally made this style of story fall flat for me.
In An Accident of Stars the closest Meadows comes from falling afoul of any of these issues is the handwavey presence of a magic whose primary, possibly sole purpose is to make it super quick and easy to learn languages, so Saffron ends up basically fluent in the two major languages spoken in a day or two each. If that seems unrealistic, at least consider whether you’d think this book was better or worse if she spent the whole thing with basically no idea what anybody was saying. Pretty forgivable in exchange for avoiding all of the rest of those pitfalls.
Saffron -does- end up embroiled in major world events, but it’s alongside the people who were already there and doing the work, and most of the time she’s in over her head, or keeping her mouth shut until she figures out what’s going on. As for the rest, there’s no prophecy, she’s not a chosen one, and while she is involved in the major events of the plot, they don’t centre around her, or magically get solved by her. Meadows strikes the perfect balance between Saffron being the focus of an interesting story about her experiences, and making sure the story stays realistic and logical.
Earlier I described the world-building as ‘aspirational’ by which I’m referring to the cultural issues surrounding sex, gender, social politics, relationships, and so on. Looking through some other reviews of this novel I found a few people critical of Meadows’ take on this, on the grounds, it seems, that it felt like some sort of social justice box checking. There was dismissal or outright denigration of the fact that various facets of these issues are mentioned, and then moved on from without going further in depth. I’m not too sure what to say to these people to try and communicate how completely backwards they have it, but I’ll do my level best here.
The thing about representation is that there are three main ways to go about doing it:
1) Look at this! Look at the thing we’ve put in here! We’re going to spend PAGES on it so you know how in here this thing is! We’re going to mention it every 30 seconds and centre the story around it so you know just how much this thing is here!
2) With no plot or story relevance at all, doing nothing in particular to inform the plot or characters, we’re going to offhandedly remark that a person is a certain kind of person so we can pat ourselves on the back for how inclusive we are.
Both of these are not good examples of representation. If what Meadows had done was either of these, I would be echoing the sentiments of those critical of the book. Mostly people seem to think number 2) is the big offender here, and I get it. I can see why you would think that having read the book. But the problem is that method 2) and 3) look similar to the untrained or inattentive or prejudicial eye, so you’ve missed it. The third method of representation is basically the middle ground between these two.
3) The world, as it exists and is presented, contains these things. This is a world where these things are normal, and accepted, and so while they will be remarked upon, they won’t become the focus of the story. Knowing these things about the characters serves the development of the characters, helps explain their motives and actions, and helps communicate the world to the readers.
This is why I describe the world-building as aspirational. One of the things SFF does for the world is show us futures and realities where some of the core problems with our reality have been fixed, or don’t exist. They give us a vision of a world where the things that here cause so much suffering and pain and misery are not only not present, but where they sometimes don’t even have a -word- for what we do. If you think these things were just tossed in and then ignored, you’ve missed the key element where these things are tossed in and then -respected- which is a pretty major difference that changes the entire tenor of the complaint from one about how representation is approached, to one that looks suspiciously like a complaint about how representation is -present at all-.
The plot itself is a great balance between being important and far-reaching in consequence on the one hand, while staying relatively low to the ground on the other. We’re dealing with Kings and Queens, and a coup and the possibility of war and invasion, but these cities and countries are small enough, and their populations seem small enough that it more accurately captures the era that it most nearly emulates. We manage to keep all the important top-level plot without getting bogged down in 100 named characters to keep straight. It was refreshing.
Altogether this was a great solid read. The characters are well done, I really feel like I got to know them. The setting is engaging, it has a strong sense of place, and while the presence of a foreigner resulted in a good number of exposition dumps for her (and our) benefit, they never felt excessive, and they were always interesting. The story was interesting, well paced and definitely kept me reading. I’m already into the second book in this duology, A Tyranny of Queens and enjoying it thoroughly. Highly recommended.
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