These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs
Orbit Books, paperback £9.99
Reviewed by Nadya Mercik
“Everything is a test,” says Esek Nightfoot in the book, and that’s what makes this story so brutal and unpredictable but, at the same time, so realistic and truthful.
Jun Ironway, a caster and con artist, is up for another heist. She is planning to procure a memory coin that would implicate a powerful Nightfoot family in some serious crimes. The coin has been stolen by pirates during a massive raid on the Nightfoot grounds after their matriarch died, and it will be worth a fortune.
At the same time, the First Cleric tasks Esek Nightfoot, a cleric herself, with finding the coin and preventing the disaster. From another planet in the Treble, he brings Esek’s former novitiate, Chono, officially to help her, but in reality, to spy on the woman and report her actions. Being a cleric, Esek Nightfoot doesn’t belong to her family anymore but is part of the Cleric Hand. However, in the will of the late Nightfoot matriarch, Esek was named her successor despite all the rules and odds. So, the First Cleric is going to test Esek as to where her loyalties lie. And that’s what Chono is there for.
Apart from the old-time apprenticeship, there is something else connecting Chono and Esek – a mysterious figure of Six. Six studied together with Chono at school and was singled out by Esek when she came to visit. Esek, with her cruel nature, has set Six the task to impress her in order for her to take it (kids don’t get a pronoun, name or gender until they graduate) as her novitiate, which led to unpredictable results.
The events develop as the Treble is in tumult, for after the death of Nightfoot matriarch, the production and trading of sevite, an artificial mineral that powers the jump gate, is under threat and with it, all the transportation in the system. The trade unions have their conditions; people are afraid they’ll be starving soon, while the Secretaries reduce the jump gate capacity to save the sevite. If the truth about the memory coin is released to the public, this can be a huge blow not just to the Nightfoot family but to the whole Treble.
Bethany Jacobs brings together quite a cast of characters. They all have their secret agendas and pasts, wear masks and ‘do performances’. The way their lives are intertwined and hooked together makes for a powerful narrative drive. So do the many mysteries that are slowly revealed to the reader, turning out to be powerful twists. Though the novel is pure science fiction, the choice of the names for the world realia gives it quite an air of fantasy. It is in no way a disadvantage – on the contrary, it makes it into quite a memorable world. With religion being embedded into politics and an almost sacred reverence of the forebearers who colonised this part of the galaxy, it’s only logical to see it that way. I loved how the IT people were turned into casters, for example.
At the very beginning of the story, for a short time, I had an impression that this would be a story of ‘superheroes’. The first moment we meet Esek Nightfoot, she strikes you with her relentlessness, power, and brutality. She looks invincible thanks to her skills and her position in the society. And it seems that the same is required from all the kids in kinschool. The usage of neutral pronouns towards the kids only accentuates this feeling – you need to earn your personality. But in the end, though the main set of characters shows amazing skills, strength and determination, they are all faulty in their nature, twisted by the brutal demands of their society. The latter is only highlighted at the end of the novel, which left me with the stark feeling that that was the only way it could be.
As far as I know, this is the first book of the trilogy, and I am really looking forward to the next novel in the series. The first one was a definite page-turner, giving me what I love most – the huge epic scale of the world, very detailed and interesting world-building, intrigues, plots and political confrontations, characters that are larger than life and very human, each marked with a personal drama. This is definitely a book that will be somewhere on the top of my list of this year’s reads.