I was on page 27 when I realized I didn’t want this book to end. That’s early even for a particularly great book, and this is truly a particularly great book. From the very first pages to its last, its greatness shines.
Elfreda is a low-ranking sister in the ruling theocracy of Aytrium, a small continent that floats above the world by the work and art of the Sisterhood’s magic. The Sisterhood also handles lawmaking, law enforcement, agriculture, urban planning, family planning, and more—they are the sole and ultimate authority for Aytrium, and Elfreda is mostly content to serve as a cog in their machine.
Mostly. But just because she’s diligent and obedient doesn’t mean she’s willing to admit that her best friends are part of a dissident group. Or that she’s profoundly reluctant to embrace some of the more extreme elements of her faith, the ceremonies that produce lace and girl children for the Sisterhood. Or that she has hallucinations that impact her work—but not as much as a Martyrdom would.
Elfreda’s visions are inspired sparks of horror, dark poetry that blurs the line between the fast-paced narrative and Elfreda’s emotional core. They’re also a great element of disorientation, which Hall boldly embraces as another complicating layer of her story. Most authors would hesitate to introduce a new world, new magic system, and also narrator instability, but Hall pulls off the balancing act magnificently.
Lace in particular is a completely intuitive and brilliantly understated magic system. It requires no explanation, which is good, because we aren’t given one. No infodumps here! Which is largely great, but occasionally left me wanting. I could have done with a bit more of the foundational mythology in the beginning to set the stage for the ending, but overall the intuitive approach works very well to create an atmosphere of daunting rules and overwhelming information, much as Elfreda herself experiences as she falls headlong into conspiracy, murder, and worse.
Star Eater is a grown-up iteration on Sabriel, a book I loved as a child for its unflinching willingness to deal with death and darkness. And it’s close cousin to The Locked Tomb Trilogy (aka Gideon and Harrow the Ninth), a necromantic tour-de-force. I’m thrilled to see that there are more and more books that are dark but not grimdark entering the market—books that don’t want to beat you about the head with the idea that realism is synonymous with cynicism, but are nonetheless willing to delve into sorrow and horror. It’s particularly well-timed, too, because I finally feel like I can read about bad things again.
There’s a famous quote by Neil Gaiman that goes “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” I’ll paraphrase a bit and say that fantasy dealing with darkness—whether necromancy or the stranger forms of un-death in Star Eater like Haunts and martyrs—is more than true because it tells us darkness can be understood. It can’t be beaten, but it can be reckoned with, embraced or sometimes held at bay.
That’s a powerful thing in these not-really-post-plague days, when the death toll defies comprehension and we’ve had no true reckoning with the reality of our sadness or the tragedy of our many failures. “Back to normal!” comes the cry from our deeply problematic institutions, ignoring the reality that no one—or, at least not one single person I know—understands what “normal” is or ought to be anymore.
Art has always been our most potent coping mechanism. During the pandemic it was a struggle for me to read dark fiction; I needed art to give me light. Now, in the ascendency of “back to normal,” it’s too real in a way I’m hungry for. It says what no one else is able to say, not even those of us living it, because it’s just really hard to articulate the scope.
Elfreda is dealing with an all-encompassing catastrophe of her own, not just the inexplicable proliferation of infected Haunts, but also with a food crisis and a rising tide of inequality. The nonmagical citizens resent the Sisterhood for its power, and Elfreda isn’t unsympathetic. High-ranking sisters live in mansions and host lavish parties catered with delicacies while the general population has to get its protein from insect paste. She has significant criticisms of the current system, but also knows that the rebels who want to destroy the system aren’t equipped to replace it—the status quo and revolution both promise more destruction than solutions. El wants to find a third way, and she also wants to find a way forward for herself specifically. I was glad to watch her try to balance her own individual needs and desires with her desire to aid the collective good, because it’s too easy for fantasy to elide a purpose with a personality. Elfreda is far more complex than even the complicated plots she becomes embroiled in, and I loved to see how she acted as much as I loved to learn what she learned.
Even the smallest acts are thoughtful in Star Eater. In the ruin of all she’d known, El still cursed by exclaiming “Eater!” It’s a small thing but a very insightful one. The “everything you knew is a lie” trope is common these days, but it’s so smart for Hall to realize that dismantling an intellectual framework doesn’t mean dismantling an emotional one. Elfreda and the entire Sisterhood struggle to the last to reconcile the various truths they know and feel, and come to vastly different—but broadly comprehensible—conclusions. This is not a book about good and evil as absolutes; it’s about good and evil choices, and equally about good and better choices. Or perhaps more accurately bad and worse choices. Elfreda certainly spends a lot of time contemplating the lesser evils when trying to work within imperfect and biased systems.
Elfreda literally tears it all down at one point, a triumph overshadowed by the chaos and destruction that ensues. There is no easy way to reckon with history, Hall is saying, and yet we must. To do otherwise is a slow starvation and an increasingly empty faith.
I’ve shelved Star Eater beside Gideon the Ninth on my bookcase. I’m overjoyed that there are now several books about Death Nuns (and even, if you’ve read that one scene in Harrow the Ninth, cannibal death nuns) that are so wildly, darkly creative. It’s a weird topical area to proliferate, sure. It’s also one I can’t wait to see expand even further, and one I hope Hall especially makes further entries to.