It’s not very often that I finish a book and have to bury my face in a pillow so I can muffle my very happy and heartbroken screaming. To be fair, I scream with fangirlish glee all the time, but I tend to do it in my head (and on my Twitter, where I can keysmash to my heart’s content and not bust anyone’s eardrums). But sometimes, a book comes along that makes me need to physically scream, because it’s either that or turn into a half-laughing, half-blubbering mess for the next ten to fifteen minutes as I try to sort out my feels.
An Accident of Stars is one of those books. The first book in the Manifold Worlds series by Foz Meadows, it tells the story of Saffron Coulter, who accidentally follows another woman named Gwen Vere through a rip in the universe and lands in Kena: a world completely unlike her own. She then learns that Gwen and Gwen’s friends are all caught up in a deadly conspiracy to bring down the current ruler of Kena, Vex Leoden, and his consort, Vex’Mara Kadeja. If Saffron wants to survive in Kena and make it back home, she will have to find a way to help Gwen bring down Leoden and Kadeja: a quest that may be the making, or the breaking, of her.
One of the very first things the reader may notice about An Accident of Stars is just how different the world is from other worlds in other epic fantasy novels. The fantasy genre has a long-standing problem of being too male, too white, too cis, too heterosexual, and too European-centric, and plenty of authors are still plodding those same, worn-down paths even in the twenty-first century. Fortunately there’s a wave of authors who are working against that tide, and with this book Meadows proves she is definitely one of them, both in her world-building and in her cast of characters.
In terms of world-building, Kena does not resemble the the typical, bog-standard European-style fantasy country that’s so often portrayed in fantasy novels: it feels a lot more like medieval Damascus than medieval London (which is a good thing, if only because medieval Damascus was probably a lot cleaner than medieval London). There are white characters, but they are far outnumbered by characters with brown or black skin – Gwen, for instance, is black, and she is one of the main characters in this novel. The predominant cultures are matriarchies, though there appears to be more equality between men and women in Kena than in the neighboring country, Veksh, which as mentioned earlier is run by a Council of Queens. Sexuality is also not questioned: bisexuality is the norm unless a person states otherwise, and even then a person is not shunned for having any particular preference for whatever gender. Or no preference at all: acceptance of aromanticism is explicitly stated in the story, but I’m willing to bet that asexuality is accepted too, even without it being said so explicitly. Trans people are accepted in Kenan society, and for those who want to match their bodies to their identities, there is a magical procedure that will make the change happen.
As for love and marriage, An Accident of Stars breaks the mold too. Kenan culture has a thing called “mahu’kedet”, which is kind of like marriage in that the people in a mahu’kedet can be romantically involved with each other, but it really has more to do with the notion of family: as in, building a family out of the people we love the most, whether platonically or romantically. Remember that platitude about the families we’re born into versus the families we choose? Mahu’kedet honors the families we choose, affirming the idea that ties of friendship (and romance) are as strong and as important as ties of blood.
Now, I could say that the above is a delightful breath of fresh air, but “delightful breath of fresh air” seems far too tame a phrase to describe the utter joy I felt reading about this world. As a brown-skinned woman, I would give almost anything to live someplace where I am treated with respect and allowed to live life to the fullest extent I wish – a world where my friends don’t have to hide who they are, but can love as they wish to love and present themselves as they wish to present themselves. Sure, indoor plumbing’s rare and there’s no Internet in Kena, but I think I could live without those things if it meant living in a world where I wouldn’t be looked down upon for my sex and my skin color (Maybe. Giving up the Internet is one thing, but indoor plumbing is a different story).
But the setting is only one reason why An Accident of Stars makes me grin like an idiot even now that I’ve put it down. The other reason is the characters. Not only are they a diverse bunch in terms of skin color, gender, and sexual preference, but they are all very strong characters. It also helps that most of them are so very easy to love: so much so that I spent a lot of time trying to hide my ever-widening grins at work because reading about them just made me so darn happy.
Not all characters are easy to love, though. Take Yasha, for example: cantankerous, manipulative, and power-hungry, she isn’t exactly what any reader might describe as “likable,” but she’s one of my favorite characters in this entire book. I don’t like her because she’s a good person; I like her because she’s a strong female character: strong in the sense that her personality is the way it is for a reason, and that reason is a lot more complex than the reader might assume. I really like it when a writer can give me a character I don’t straightforwardly like or dislike, especially so if the character is a woman, and Yasha is everything I think a complicated character should be.
Based on everything I’ve mentioned it’s reasonable for the reader to expect an epic plot to go with the world-building and the characterization, and while the plot does get pretty epic towards the latter third, it doesn’t really pick up speed until midway through the novel. Still, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, given that the first half of the book is mostly dedicated to setting up the characters and building them into a believable set of people. That setup is very important, by the way, because it is relationships that form the engine driving this plot through to the end. To be sure, there’s a sense of urgency because of what the antagonists are doing, but what really keeps the plot moving forward is how all the relationships between the characters – whether filial, platonic, or romantic – change and shift and grow under the strain of their shared mission. Some bonds may shatter, but many more grow: tentative at first, but eventually become strong enough to overcome any and all obstacles – not easily, perhaps, and not painlessly, but still strong enough to overcome and endure.
And when I get right down to it, it’s that focus on relationships that really made me want to scream when I finally got to the end, because by then I was totally invested in these characters and their connections to each other, and I really, really wanted them to be happy with everything and everyone around them. “Love conquers all” is such a tired, trite old cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason, and sometimes, in the right story, told by the right writer, it stops being tired and trite but becomes relevant and sincere. This is definitely that story, and Meadows is definitely that writer.
Overall, An Accident of Stars is the emotional roller coaster ride I was not expecting. I was looking forward to reading it because I wanted to read a fun portal fantasy, but what I got was so, so much more than that. I got a story about family, and friendship, and love, and acceptance and strength and resiliency and growing up. It is, in short, one of those stories that reads more like truth than make-believe – and those stories are very rare indeed. An Accident of Stars is a five-star read for sure, but if I could give it more I definitely would.
An Accident of Stars is available on Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the title to find them all.