The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne, is a massive epic that blends elements of fantasy and science fiction into a story that spans thousands of years. The story takes place over three separate storylines, each one feeding into the next like a beautiful, bizarre blueprint. The first one is set in 1012 and follows a pair of royal twins as they begin preparations to rule over a flourishing Maya kingdom. The second storyline is set in 2012 and follows Leah – a half-American, half-Maya teenager – on a journey of self-discovery. The last timeline is set in the far future of 3012 and follows an advanced Mayan society that has taken over and bettered the Earth (though it has some hiccups it is grappling with). All three timelines are a love letter to Mayan history, culture, and lore and stand out as one of the most unique reads of 2021.
Although all three storylines are closely intertwined, they have different flows and feels. This resulted in me having wildly different opinions and levels of enjoyment for all three. Up first we have the twins establishing an empire in 1012. This storyline is the foundation of Byrne’s world and does a ton of the legwork to seed tons of future foreshadowing and create the skeleton of what the 2012 and 3012 plot lines will grow into. It has some brilliant worldbuilding and is a really cool way to use a narrative structure to wrap up little presents that get opened in the later storylines. However, I ended up only feeling lukewarm during this time period. While there is some inventive worldbuilding and setup, the actual story of the twins doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere. There are a lot of cool themes and high-minded ideas around sacrifice, yearning, and freedom vs. captivity – but they don’t do much to make this story compelling.
I found the 2012 timeline really hard to enjoy, which is a shame as it’s the linchpin of the entire book. As mentioned, the middle timeline focuses on Leah, easily the most important character in the book. She is a wayward teen on a journey of self-discovery to connect with her Mayan roots. She is pulling forward all of the ancient traditions established in the first timeline and giving them a modern twist. She is also paving the way for the third and final timeline, where she is revered as a saint and the mother of society. All of this is cool but is not helped by her being an absolute insufferable ass. I knew I was in trouble early on when I read some passages that were clearly meant to paint Leah’s parents as stifling and terrible – and I found myself agreeing with the parents more than I agreed with Leah. Her passages feel like they were pulled right out of The Catcher in the Rye based on the levels of angst on display. Her weird teen drama feels very alien compared to the other two timelines. In some ways, this works to the book’s benefit, showing how Mayan culture could be reimagined from the first timeline and facilitating real societal change in the third one. But I simply could not get over how much I didn’t like Leah as a character.
The third and final timeline is by far the strongest in my eyes. It’s what kept me coming back to the book time and time again. In 3012 we find ourselves in this weird pacifistic anarchy where nations no longer exist. The world has become highly individualistic and each individual builds their own identity from three key components and abstract ideas. It’s a really cool reimagining of society and it has some very powerful commentary on what the world could look like if we got rid of blights like capitalism and nationalism. I have nothing but praise for this third timeline and don’t want to tell you more to avoid spoilers. The 3012 story felt like Atlas, carrying the 2012 storyline on its shoulders.
Overall, I had a mixed experience with The Actual Star. There were some very high highs and low lows, but I still definitely recommend the book for its unique perspective and original ideas. This is clearly a work of love and passion for Byrne, and while I think the execution could have been better, it is still an incredibly impressive piece of fiction. If you have even a passing interest in Mayan culture, check this one out.
Rating: The Actual Star – 7.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.