The Order comprises a Council of Representatives, the Heralds, Acolytes, and Oblates. Together, these groups form a Sisterhood that governs the island of Aytrium, including Acolyte Elfreda Raughn. Per long-standing tradition, El’s mother entered the Martyrium and El became a full Sister. At twenty-two, she is a Junior Officer working in the Department of Food Management. Every day, El and her department are preparing to help Aytrium cope with the ever worsening effects of a long-running drought. It’s just one of the many signs of unrest El is aware of. Other signs include an unexpected encounter with a murderous Haunt, confronting the fact that her friends are part of a resistance group dedicated to ending the Order’s rule, and a surprise offer to engage in a little espionage from one of her superior officers.
All her life, El has expected to do nothing more than toe the line. But growing civil unrest in Atrium and her increasingly conflicting feelings about the myriad of sacrifices, both literal and figurative, that the Sisterhood makes have El disillusioned with her life. When Revered Hayder offers El a reprieve from so-called “renewals” where Sisters must engage in sexual intercourse with a man to sustain the Order, El jumps at the chance. But in so doing, El quickly learns the situation on Aytrium is far more dangerous than she ever imagined. There are Sisters themselves who seem to be seeking a way to consolidate power within the Order to maintain the status quo. To do that, they are searching for what’s called the Renewer–a Sister who is born with enough natural power to rejuvenate and restore the entire Order’s power. That Sister is El.
Star Eater is a sweeping, dramatic story bursting with suspense and drama from author Kerstin Hall. It takes place in a mythical world that draws on near dystopian themes through a corrupt (or corruptible) governing body and on elements of fantasy through the hereditary magical powers (both helpful and harmful) the Sisterhood wields. The story is told from El’s perspective and I thought Hall did an amazing job building the world El inhabits. Personally, I really enjoyed how the terminology of religious ceremony gets applied in this world. It both offers instantly recognizable concepts, like the social hierarchy of Sisters, but also offers a thin veil over what exactly a sacrament is to a Sister in the Martyrium of Aytrium.
One thing that stood out about the flow of the story is how carefully planned the plot felt and how thoughtfully the supporting characters were used. The book is more than 400 pages, but I never felt like any scenes were gratuitous or belabored. Nothing felt slapdash; at the same time, not everything always slotted together perfectly. When El takes her friend Millie to a social engagement, Millie assumes the false name Lariel. That name actually belongs to a woman who was romantically linked to Millie when they both were on the resistance. Lariel herself later comes to have meaningful involvement in the actual storyline. It was fun to read how organically Lariel gets worked into the fabric of the story, first as a mere name then as her own character, then as a character that affects the plot. One of the less clear cut events in the book related to the blood-thirsty Haunts. It was clear that Sisters are the ones who infect otherwise healthy men with the disease that turns the men into killing machines. It’s less clear cut how El apparently manages to eradicate this disease from the world as a Sister of the Order.
To be clear, this story probably does not qualify as a romance. That said, El does grapple with and come to terms with loving her best friend, Finn. At first, I thought El was a cis het woman and, as far as I could tell, Finn was a cis het man–so I interpreted this as a non-queer pairing. That said, there is a scene where Millie and El talk about their feelings for each other. Feeling like her chance with Finn was all but over, El thought she could learn to love Millie. That and a comment from El where she states she likes women well enough pushed her into bisexual territory, I thought. In addition to El having the capacity to feel attraction to men and women, the robust supporting cast also includes a lot of LGBTQ representation. In addition to strictly women-only Millie (who does hold a torch for El, but hasn’t let her unrequited feelings for El prevent her from forming romantic relationships with other women), there are also Osan, Saskia, and Rhyanon. Osan is a gay man who becomes a good friend and confidant to El. Saskia and Rhyanon are an established couple and put their lives on the line to help El survive. Honestly, with El’s fight for survival, discovery of the truth about the Sisterhood, and redemption against those who would murder her for her power, the lack of a hot and heavy romance was hardly noticeable. And I loved seeing queer characters being badasses because that just who they are, not because of who they love or how they identify.
Overall, I thought Star Eater was deeply engrossing. I loved how Hall builds a solid foundation upon which the fantastic elements of this story unfold. Through El, I felt intimately acquainted with the Sisterhood and its social order, as well as El’s dissatisfaction with it. That was key to understanding her conflicted feelings about the life she was born into and the resentment she knows her friends feel towards the Sisterhood, if not herself specifically. If you’re looking for a richly imagined, immersive world starring a very relatable lead character or if you like dystopian fantasy stories, or just like well thought out and well written books, I think you’ll enjoy Star Eater.