The City of Stardust by Georgia Summers tells the story of the Everly family burdened with a curse, a bargain made with a mysterious woman named Penelope, who always comes to collect. Marianne Everly, determined to lift the curse, leaves her only daughter, Violet, behind with her brothers. The problem arises when Violet’s mother never comes back. After years of no sign from Marianne, time is ticking down to the wire when Penelope will come for Violet. Aleksander, Penelope’s assistant, is intertwined with Violet’s fate and aspires to become Penelope’s right hand as a Scholar in the fabled city known as Fidelis.
From the beginning, the world Summers has created is ripe with mysteries. Before the name Fidelis is even mentioned, Marianne’s whereabouts drive Violet to leave the comfort of home to track her mother. I’m not usually fond of novels where the questions are more important than the answers or where the journey seems more important than the destination. However, Violet’s journey to find her mother and the questions about Penelope and Fidelis have an air of Neil Gaiman-like whimsy if underneath that trail of whimsy laid a path of blood. It has that true fairytale-like feeling, the real ones where people die, and the heroes sometimes get a monkey’s paw-finger curling ending that isn’t quite as happy as it seems on the surface.
The relationship between Aleksander and Violet is the crux of the book. Violet, longing to have a relationship with this world her mother was a part of, feels a pull from Aleksander to learn about the Scholars, Fidelis, and the magic surrounding it. Despite working directly for Penelope and the edict placed upon the scholars not to help any Everly, Aleksander feels drawn to helping Violet even though it might cost him the one thing he’s been pursuing most of his life. They both feel like they’re running away from their problems of not knowing their place in the world to each other.
As an antagonist, Penelope is a legitimate, frightening presence from beginning to end, starting as a mere debt collector coming for what she is owed to her shadow and claws growing larger as the Everly family’s deadline comes to a head. She is the kind of creature that’d say they don’t make threats, only promises she is one hundred percent committed to doing, especially when it comes to the Everlys. The way Summers tells us who Penelope is and what the origin of the Everly curse is is so well done, using a story told multiple times of a man and a god falling in love and the deals that must be struck for their relationship to even exist. Each time it’s told, it becomes a guessing game of which one is the true version of the tale.
The threat of Penelope and the curse looms over everything Violet does. Summers takes us around the world as Violet intermingles with the Scholars of Fidelis to find information about her mother, but because of the curse, she doesn’t have the time to enjoy any of the places she travels to. It sometimes makes the action feel like it’s moving too fast alongside the heavy dialogue portions, which can make the book’s pacing feel imbalanced. However much I enjoyed the book, I left it wishing for more Violet moments or chapters and fewer other point-of-view chapters, as short as they were, from minor characters. Though they do build up Penelope as this credible threat following Violet’s trail additional Aleksander chapters could have done the same.
That minor quibble aside, The City of Stardust’s magic tells a thrilling tale of bargains made for power, information, and belonging without questioning the cost of such a bargain. Not just the Everly family but the Scholars, Aleksander, and even Penelope herself. It’s the kind of magic that even if the author were to explain it all with expositional dialogue, you wouldn’t fully understand it, nor would you want to, as if comes from another world, another plane, or another state of being. The version of The City of Stardust with that kind of exposition would probably be worse off for it. It’s better not to know it all and place the puzzle pieces together in your imagination for yourself.
Check out No Page Unturned, a book podcast featuring this reviewer on the Geeklyinc network
Joshua was provided an advance copy of the book by Orbit Books.
If you liked this review, please consider buying the reviewer a coffee.
Follow Joshua MacDougall @FourofFiveWits on Twitter, Bluesky, and Twitch.