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Star Eater


Star Eater

If you’re the squeamish type, you might not want to read this book. Or even this review. Kerstin Hall’s STAR EATER is set in Aytrium, an island in the sky. Two major rituals dominate the culture: Members of the cultlike ruling Sisterhood literally feed on their forebears, and they subject themselves periodically to sex with a stranger, often a violent convict. What sort of social system is based on, essentially, cannibalism and rape?

Maybe the ick factor, in an era when zombies and vampires are frequent players in popular entertainment, doesn’t loom as large for this generation as it did for older folks. Let’s hope that is true, for Hall’s sake. This is the South African author’s first full-length novel; her 2019 novella, THE BORDER KEEPER, won the Nommo Award (sponsored by the African Speculative Fiction Society). On Twitter, the publisher calls STAR EATER “THE HANDMAID’S TALE by way of Dungeons & Dragons,” featuring “vicious nuns on a floating city.” These days, I guess darkness sells.

Although Hall’s protagonist, Elfreda Raughn (El for short), is a junior member of the Sisterhood, an Acolyte, she is a rebel and a doubter, too. In Aytrium and its major city, Ceyrun, the senior Sisters, or Reverends, make up a ruling Council, but this is hardly a woman-dominated democracy; it’s more like a theocracy crossed with the bloody and byzantine politics of ancient Rome. (The large cast of characters listed at the beginning was essential, and I could have used a map, too.)

The Reverends control not only the everyday business of their world (public health, food management, law enforcement and the like), but its history as well. What is fascinating about STAR EATER is the way that Hall unpeels, little by little, the myth of the powerful goddess figure who lifted Aytrium into the sky some 500 years ago. Eating bits of the Sisters’ unconscious but living mothers is supposed to maintain that magical bloodline in the form of a mysterious interior power called lace --- which can be used as a weapon, as well as a means of mental manipulation.

"The novel’s premise is intriguing, no doubt about it. But what surprised and delighted me most was Hall’s wonderful writing, the rich detail of the world she’s built."

Another aspect of the orthodoxy concerns men: Women with lace infect them (through sexual contact or airborne transmission) with a plague that turns them into flesh-eating monsters known as Haunts. Thus the only safe path to reproduction is Renewal duty, where Sisters are required to have sex with expendable men, usually prisoners, who then become Haunts and are thrown off the Edge into the void (if the infants are male, they meet the same fate). Free lovemaking between Sisters and civilian men is forbidden.

Elfreda’s two best friends, however, are not only civilians but members of the Resistance that aims to topple the Sisterhood: the brother and sister Finn and Millie. El is a little bit in love with both of them, but Finn proves irresistible. Although it’s against the law (“The single most important rule for any Sister: men were off-limits. We were poison. I was poison”), they kiss. And that proves to have dangerous consequences.

When STAR EATER begins, Aytrium is in crisis. There is a severe drought, with water and food in short supply. The Sisters’ lace is weaker than it has been in decades; to replenish their power, they are awaiting a Christlike figure called the Renewer, a Sister unusually rich in lace who appears every 70 years. As the tension builds, battle lines are drawn between two factions in the Sisterhood: those determined to preserve the status quo by any means necessary, including murder, and those who support change and join forces with the civilian Resistance.

The novel’s premise is intriguing, no doubt about it. But what surprised and delighted me most was Hall’s wonderful writing, the rich detail of the world she’s built. Her main characters, especially El, Millie and Finn, are vivid, passionate, flawed yet righteous individuals. The Reverends --- the villainous Sisters, as well as the kind, bossy ones --- are almost as compelling.

Hall’s descriptive powers stunned me: lush, sensuous, mood-establishing passages that put us right smack in the middle of Elfreda’s brain, or a physical place. Some examples: When El is nervous before Renewal duty, “the world outside had developed a raw, over-saturated quality. On the street, voices rang loud and crass. Colours smoldered. Even the air tasted sour….” In contrast, after being rescued from a violent attack, she finds herself at a beneficent Reverend’s manor, and the atmosphere is serene: “Green linens covered the bed. I lay in a yellow-walled room overlooking a leafy garden. The view through the window was screened by delicate birch saplings, and a breeze wafted the gauze curtains like the breath of a sleeping animal. On the pine sideboard rested a pot of tea and a plate of buttered bread.”

Hall’s depiction of Ceyrun is particularly brilliant. The city feels real and concrete, with names for each street and district, and you get an immediate sense of the gap in power and wealth between the senior Sisters and the civilian populace. When El attends a fancy soiree in a privileged neighborhood, the scene is awash in silk dresses and elaborate décor and lavish, decadent party food. But the vibe on the street at Moon Tide, the most important holiday of the year, is all diversity and vitality (think IN THE HEIGHTS):

“Hundreds of people flooded the road, shopping, talking, watching entertainers tumble and sing and recite crude jokes, modelling for street artists, arguing about prices. Costumes, children, pork fat sizzling in frying pans, hand-embroidered scarves and shirts stained with wine, hawkers, shouting, the smell of spiced lamb, smoke from open fires, shrieks of laughter, and in every direction the festival spread and continued, more chaos and more abundance.”

I hate to say anything bad about STAR EATER, but I don’t think the explanations of Aytrium’s history and rituals arrive soon enough. There are worse things than being cryptic. Many fantasy writers front-load their stories with so much background that you give up before the plot even gets going. But I did find myself frustrated when, a couple of hundred pages in, I still didn’t know who the Star Eater was supposed to be or how the culture had developed such grotesque traditions. As a result, the last half is absolutely crammed with revelations and epiphanies, along with a cascade of action sequences (exciting!), as El and her friends contend with disease-plagued men and homicidal Reverends. The balance is off: Early on, there is too much vagueness. Later, there isn’t quite enough space for the story to breathe.

Still, I loved the book, and the ending --- Elfreda goes off on an unspecified “expedition” --- suggests that a sequel may be in the works. Hall is an authentic new talent. Wherever her imagination takes her, I’ll be glad to follow.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on June 26, 2021

Star Eater
by Kerstin Hall

  • Publication Date: October 4, 2022
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Tordotcom
  • ISBN-10: 1250625335
  • ISBN-13: 9781250625335