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The Girl and the Stars is the first book in the new Book of the Ice trilogy by US/UK author Mark Lawrence, and the second series to take place on the world of Abeth (Also the setting for the Book of the Ancestor trilogy) and introduces us to the peoples who live on the ice, far from the tiny sliver of otherwise inhabitable land left to this planet. A story that manages to segue seamlessly from adventure to horror to mystery and back to adventure, The Girl and the Stars looks like another excellent start to what will be an excellent series from Lawrence.

In the ice, east of the Black Rock, there is a hole into which broken children are thrown.

On Abeth the vastness of the ice holds no room for individuals. Survival together is barely possible. No one survives alone.

To resist the cold, to endure the months of night when even the air itself begins to freeze, requires a special breed. Variation is dangerous, difference is fatal. And Yaz is not the same.

Yaz is torn from the only life she’s ever known, away from her family, from the boy she thought she would spend her days with, and has to carve out a new path for herself in a world whose existence she never suspected. A world full of difference and mystery and danger.

Yaz learns that Abeth is older and stranger than she had ever imagined. She learns that her weaknesses are another kind of strength. And she learns to challenge the cruel arithmetic of survival that has always governed her people.

Only when it’s darkest you can see the stars.

In some recent reviews, I discussed the idea of an author having a particular specialty, a narrow focus on something that, whether the rest of their writing is good or bad, is generally the highlight of their work. By this point it is extremely clear to me that Mark Lawrence is the master of the opening paragraph. You see a lot of writing advice talking about how you need to hook readers quickly if you want to get them engaged in your work, and this has led to a lot of in medias res writing, lots of dropping people into action because action is exciting and thus theoretically engaging.

Lawrence, conversely, seems to just craft the most intriguing possible sentences that could appear anywhere in his novel, and put them right up front where you have no choice but to be immediately taken in. While for my money, Red Sister remains the greatest opening I’ve ever read, I defy you to read this opening and not leave this review right now to go buy this book:

Many babies have killed, but it is very rare that the victim is not their mother. When the father handed his infant to the priestess to speak its fortune the child stopped screaming and in its place she began to howl, filling the silence left behind.

Omens are difficult and open to interpretation but if the oracle that touches your newborn dies moments later, frothing at the mouth, it is hard even with a mother’s love to think it a good sign.

In such cases a second opinion is often sought.

We’re not in an action scene, we’re not in the middle of the plot, we’re well in the past of the whole novel, but boy do I ever really want to know what this kid’s deal is now. I can always count on Lawrence to get me over that ‘am I bought into this?’ hump literally on page 1, every time.

So having made the assumption that you’re now already sold on this book, the next point I want to address is Lawrence’s world-building. The world of Abeth is not the far-flung past or future of the post-apocalyptic Earth setting of two of his other trilogies, but there are a lot of elements of the portrayal of the world that hearken back to The Broken Empire. I really enjoy the way there is very clearly a whole rich and deep history at play here, but because the characters have almost no knowledge of it, we don’t either. It gives him a lot of potential hooks to bring into later books, which I’ve always appreciated as a writing technique.

By making a lot of implications, and leaving a lot of hints but only resolving the ones that need to be, it really helps with the plotting of later books, in that we have an extremely hard time predicting what will actually happen, and many doors are open to Lawrence if inspiration strikes and the plot wants to go in a different direction than he had envisioned. I have no idea how often that happens for him between drafting and finishing a novel, but baking in that mutability from the beginning is definitely a strong choice that makes the writing a lot better.

His characters, as well, have a certain vitality to them that makes them stand apart from a lot of fantasy. While he definitely seems at his most comfortable portraying people in crisis and perils both external and existential, he does an excellent job capturing the angst and the anxieties and fears and stresses of his characters. While I’m legitimately not sure what a very cheerful and happy denouement would look like coming from Lawrence (Even his ‘happy’ endings I’ve read tend to include some elements of a Pyrrhic flavour), you can’t detract from the skill he has in portraying conflict.

I’m also a proponent of the piece of writing advice that says if your conflict could be resolved entirely by having the parties to the conflict have a conversation with one another, you have a bad conflict. I can’t think of a single time Lawrence has fallen afoul of this pitfall. While miscommunications and misunderstandings absolutely contribute to some of the conflict here, it manages to be much more fundamental than that. There’s no easy way out of the conflicts that impact these characters, only difficult ways through, and so the plot never drags, or feels unnecessary. And while it can trend a little on the brutal side for some readers, I think there’s something deeply realistic about it that makes that a lot easier to take.

This was definitely a very enjoyable read, and I will be keeping an eye out for the next installments, as I’m absolutely bought into the premise, and the ending absolutely left me wanting more. A fantastic start to another series.

Dan received an Advance Review Copy of this novel from Harper Voyager via Netgalley

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