Review: Star Eater by Kerstin Hall

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All martyrdoms are difficult.

Elfreda Raughn will avoid pregnancy if it kills her, and one way or another, it will kill her. Though she’s able to stomach her gruesome day-to-day duties, the reality of preserving the Sisterhood of Aytrium’s magical bloodline horrifies her. She wants out, whatever the cost.

So when a shadowy cabal approaches Elfreda with an offer of escape, she leaps at the opportunity. As their spy, she gains access to the highest reaches of the Sisterhood, and enters a glittering world of opulent parties, subtle deceptions, and unexpected bloodshed.

Star Eater’s premise stalled me in my tracks, a pull of curiosity dragging me along like a child that has hold of my sleeve. It sounded, simultaneously, like nothing I’ve ever read and everything I never knew I needed: a story about an order of bureaucratic priestesses who practice cannibalistic magic in service of sisterhood. Also…zombies (with a deliciously hideous twist!). I was viciously intrigued.

                  Star Eater lives up to its billing, in the most fucked up and delicious of ways. It astonishes and harrows to the bone, all at once. A novel that invites you to pull back the curtain and drink in the savage sights with your eyes open even as you battle the urge to look away, to put as much distance between you and the words as possible.

                  That, however, isn’t an option: Hall’s prose is addictive, as easy to slurp down as pilfered wine, and her images are so vividly, hauntingly described they gleamed so clearly in my mind’s eye. I fell into the novel headlong and read it as if it were the last oxygen mask in a room without air, hungry for the secret revelations churning like fish under the surface, and willing to let the story take me where it might.

                  The author plunges the reader in a world where cannibalism is a hereditary ritual, borne out of rueful necessity more than anything else, an ostensibly sufficient sacrifice in exchange for the powerful lace-magic that preserves Aytrium. But that isn’t the only price. This is the trinity of a priestess’ fears: pregnancy, Haunts (i.e. zombies), and rot. The first is carefully wrapped up in towering words of honor and duty and sacrifice, but is in truth the beginning of the end. The second is the vicious product of a renegade Sister, and it rings of treason as clear as the moans of lament and hatred climbing up from the abyss the Haunts are doomed to. The third is more awful than death.

                  It is a thrilling feat of worldbuilding, and I was impressed by how readily the author develops an entire world in the most exquisite level of detail, slowly and carefully threading together the intricate elements of her mythology like glass beads on a string. And, of course, there’s murder, martyrdom, and macabre political games: a necessary recipe for any vibrant and memorable tale.

                  Throughout it all, Star Eater ponders very weighty questions: about lineage and power—power as a superlative performance, like a story well-told, power as corruption and gore, its cost and the question of who must pay it—and about the atavistic horror and silence of women’s inheritances and the virtuoso illusion of choice which can be, like any successful illusion, carefully unraveled.

                  Elfreda’s journey is the novel’s deep, bloody heart, and the unsettling specificities of her struggle against a system that ties her to it by chains that supersede both her will and her heart amount to a haunting illustration of how society’s memory—the stories we enshrine as something gleaming and shining and those we shake off as lies and rumors—can contribute to dangerous systematic misunderstandings. In that sense, Star Eater works as a brutal, sobering jolt of self-awareness, and an invitation to take a long, hard look at the narratives we mechanically, unconsciously, often unthinkingly allow ourselves to follow, and at the poisonous constructs within which we allow ourselves to live, and fester. The slow unravelling of Elfreda’s certainties throughout the novel, like a hand shoving away cobwebs, empties her out of everything but a potent, spiteful desire to finally consider what she wants, what kind of person she might be when she isn’t bending like the stem of a flower for someone else’s will—and I rooted for her so feverishly.

                  The story, however, isn’t all gloom and deepest darkness. One of the joys of Star Eater lies in how the author dwells on extremity and beauty in equal measure, swinging from obscene scenes of violence and depravity to unexpected moments of rueful, velvet tenderness that strip you oh so gently to the bone. There’s blood and gore and hideous choices made in extremis, but there’s also the warm comfort of long-standing friendship—the kind that quiets the hornet’s nest in your head and hangs like a lamp in the darkness of your life—and a simmering, deeply moving romance filled with secret, stifled longings and aching distances between people who are learning how to finally allow their hearts the freedom to fall. Above all, there’s that breathless push of hope, opening up like a flower at dawn, for change and salvation and forgiveness and ample, better tomorrows.

                  My only real quibble with Star Eater is the stark and unignorable absence of trans and gender non-conforming people in this ostensibly queer-normative world, and I stepped out of the story itching over that absence, feeling bereft of answers to questions that weren’t even asked. I feel personally more and more out of charity for stories that treat queerness as the norm, but markedly exclude certain trans and NB identities in their worldbuilding. I really, really liked this book, but I can’t truthfully say that this had not put a noticeable dent in my memory of it.

CW: body horror, cannibalism, murder, rape, and abuse.

Thank you to Tordotcom for providing me with an early copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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