Sometimes a book comes along with such a powerful blurb that you can’t help but be drawn to it. The Starless Crown, by James Rollins, is one such novel. A kind editor at Tor sent me the elevator pitch for this book back in the middle of last year and I was immediately entranced. A band of unlikely heroes comes together in a science fiction fantasy story to fight the literal moon? Where do I sign? Unfortunately, because of our packed review schedule, and the fact that The Starless Crown does not come out until early next month, I had to push my read of this exciting new story… until last week. As the first novel in the MoonFall series, is it an explosive success or just a crater?
Starless follows three and a half protagonists, which is new for me. The half is because the fourth protagonist joins the story about halfway through, but once they hit the ground they keep running. Our eclectic adventuring party is made up of first Nyx, a fourteen-year-old student at a prestigious school studying the secrets of the world and who also happens to be 90% blind. Second, we have Prince Kanthe, a second son and wastrel who lives a life of debauchery because he can never have his older twin’s throne. His father tires of his antics and sends him on a quest to destroy the home of the Myr bats, enormous poisonous bats that are extremely dangerous. Third, we have Rhaif, thief and amateur archeologist. Rhaif is stuck in prison when he discovers a powerful artifact in the mines below the jail. After using it to escape, he finds himself on the run for his life. Finally, we have Graylin, a knight in exile who is finally given a reason to come home. There is more to this story, but he is the half a protagonist I mentioned and I don’t want to give away too much.
So what do all of these people have in common? Well, they are trying to fight the sky. The world of Starless is a distant planet that is in a tidal lock in its solar system. What this means, essentially, is that the same side of the planet is always facing the sun which turns half into a boiling death trap, and the other half into a frozen death trap. The only survivable portion is a thin (starless) crown around the planet that is habitable at the equator. This would all be well and good, but early on in the story a teacher figure of Kanthe discovers that on top of everything else that makes their world SUPER FUN, the moon is also in a gravitational decline and will soon crash into the planet and kill literally everyone. Just the best. As this information propagates our diverse cast all end up looking for solutions to the death by moon problem. Thus we get 4 quests that cross and diverge all unified by the same goal of not dying by moon.
There is a really powerful frantic energy in Starless. Rollins does a very good job establishing a heavy and urgent atmosphere around this idea that everyone is going to die to a cosmic event that they can’t even begin to hope to affect (at first). On top of this, the cast is just delightfully memorable. On top of each character having a great hook, they have a really nice range of personalities that foil off one another. Nyx is curious and insightful, Kanthe is charismatic and boisterous, Raith is cunning and competent, and Graylin is chivalrous and driven. Despite their time together in this first volume being short, all of them feel like they fit together in this large phantom puzzle.
To top it all off, the plot is exciting and thrilling. Rollins apparently was a thriller bestseller before this, and it comes through in his story structure. The twists are many and exciting. The plot is always swerving to interesting and exciting places. On top of this, Rollins may be new to fantasy but he clearly knows the genre. There are lots of fun trope subversions that are clever and not just there to be ‘twisty’. So with all of these brilliant positives, Starless must seem like a knockout success. Unfortunately, I still have an area I need to dig into about where I struggled with this book: the prose.
If I didn’t consistently struggle with the prose of this book, I might have already flagged it as a potential top novel of 2022. I found Starless’ exposition lacking, the dialogue stilted, and the delivery oddly repetitive. To begin Starless is filled with very complicated and interesting sounding locations and creatures, but their descriptions fail to bring them to life. Exposition in some places is so short and vague I struggled to understand what I was looking at. In addition, most of the dialogue is extremely awkward. Most of the internal monologues were great, but when characters interacted I always got the feeling that I was watching actors in a play. I was constantly aware that I was reading a book and was actively pushed out of my immersion in many instances. Finally, passages were sometimes extremely repetitive. I occasionally wondered if this was only an issue of my ARC, because it would feel like Rollins left two versions of a scene in a book in order to try them both out. Characters repeat conversations with only minor deviations. One example early on is when Raith is moving about his prison. We are treated to a description of a guard about how callous and selfish he is, only to get a second description on the next page that also describes him as callous and selfish, with only a slightly different example to demonstrate. My enjoyment of Starless was constantly weighed down by the writing and it was a disappointment.
The Starless Crown has a squadron of strengths in its corner. With its twisty plot, cool world, and great cast it sits as a fun and entrancing read that straddles both the science fiction and fantasy genre. Unfortunately, my struggles with the book’s prose kept me from engaging with the material. I had enough fun that I will be back for the sequel, but I hope my issues with the prose are less prevalent by then.
Rating: The Starless Crown – 7.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.