Summary: 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?
Review: Before this, most of what I’d read by Meadows consisted of insightful blog posts and amusing interactions on Twitter. But that was enough to know that we agree on many different standpoints, and that she’s a good writer capable of delving into many complex themes, and so chances were good that I would enjoy reading An Accident of Stars.
The story starts off with Saffron, in school, unfortunately experiencing harassment that those in charge are unwilling to put a stop to. A strange woman, Gwen, comes to Saffron’s rescue, and later, when Saffron attempts to find her and thank her for what she did, it turns out that Gwen isn’t exactly from this world, and Saffron stumbles after her through an interdimensional magic portal.
Saffron now finds herself in an entirely different world, one with magic and unfamiliar cultures, and she gets herself tangled in a dangerous political plot with consequences far more far-reaching than anyone could have anticipated.
The only way I can describe Meadows’s worldbuilding properly is to say it’s Jemisin-esque. It’s so complete, so entirely itself. The rich detail of multiple cultures, and the people shaping and shaped by those cultures, is exquisite, and a real treat to dive into. Even though we primarily see the world unfold from two different viewpoints, both of whom are outsiders to various degrees (Saffron has newly arrived, and though Gwen has been worldwalking for some time now, she still views things from a unique “between both worlds” angle), the new cultures that are presented to them — and us, as readers — are never judged by the standards of the person’s original world. Or perhaps it better to say that the two worlds are never played against each other, with no subtle written bias that one way of doing things in superior to another. They are what they are, and Saffron in particular has no leisure to sit and think about her world being better or this new world being better. The worlds stand on their own.
This is also the kind of novel that ticks just about every box that certain people will rally against and decry and “needlessly PC” and “message fiction.” Characters that are gay, bisexual, polyamourous, aromantic while not being asexual (which is a combo that, weirdly, a lot of stories don’t touch on that often), transgender (though she gets magic to help with transitioning), a female protagonist, people of colour, people with disabilities, people who are sick and tired of dismissing sexual harassment with the old “boys will be boys” attitude. In short, this book is pretty much the epitome of everything these people say makes for bad fiction when you include it, and yet despite that, somehow, it’s astoundingly great! It’s rich and complex and features so many characters whose stories interest me, who contribute and observe and participate in the tale as it moves along, and at no point did I ever feel bored or preached to or like this was some terrible morality play underneath it all.
(Then again, I’m exactly the kind of person who thinks that there needs to be more SFF like this, not less, so I’m hardly a convert to the idea that diversity and representation are good things.)
And the important thing is, none of the characters felt like they were there because someone was ticking boxes on some diversity checklist. Gwen wasn’t aromantic because the story “needed” a character who enjoys sex but isn’t into romantic relationships. None of the characters or cultures needed to be white or not white. I don’t get the impression that the author sat down and went, “Oh, right, I need a bisexual character in here or else people will accuse me of being narrow-minded; ugh, fine, I’ll make this character bi, just to shut them up.” There is no tokenism at work here. These things are woven into characters’ personalities, giving them additional depth and different experiences in the world around them, but they add to the characters rather feeling like an addition to the characters.
I flat-out adore the world that Meadows created here, with its rich unique cultures and language and clothing styles. I want to read more things set in it, to spend more time there with characters I’ve grown to know and appreciate. The story is phenomenal, a brilliant fantasy with fascinating characters and an overarching plot that’s full of action and intrigue and the world being on a precipice, on the knife-edge of revolution while the reader sits on the revolutionaries’ shoulders. Meadows is on par with the modern fantasy greats here, and this is a spectacular novel that you can’t afford to miss.
(Received for review from the publisher.)