Author: Elizabeth C. Bunce
Genre: Fantasy, YA
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication Date: October 2010
Hardcover: 400 pages
Digger thrives as a spy and sneak-thief among the feuding religious factions of Gerse, dodging the Greenmen who have banned all magic. But when a routine job goes horribly wrong and her partner and lover Tegen is killed, she has to get out of the city, fast, and hides herself in a merry group of nobles to do so. Accepted as a lady’s maid to shy young Merista Nemair, Digger finds new peace and friendship at the Nemair stronghold–as well as plenty of jewels for the taking. But after the devious Lord Daul catches her in the act of thievery, he blackmails her into becoming his personal spy in the castle, and Digger soon realizes that her noble hosts aren’t as apolitical as she thought… that indeed, she may be at the heart of a magical rebellion.
Stand alone or series: First book in a planned series
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I loved Elizabeth C. Bunce’s debut novel, A Curse Dark As Gold, which is undoubtedly THE best Rumpelstiltskin retelling I have ever read. As the book was one of my top 10 reads of 2008, StarCrossed was a long time coming!
Digger is a master forger and sneak thief, and she never gets caught. After her last job goes drastically wrong, ending with the capture of her dearest friend and partner Tegen, Digger is forced to flee her home city of Gerse for fear of the King’s inquisition – the Greenmen – and their torturous methods. With a handful of stolen letters from the botched job hidden in the bodice of her only dress, Digger stumbles upon a group of inebriated nobles (“nobs”) who, looking for distraction and directions out of the city, invite the pretty little vagabond on their gondola. Though wary of this seemingly fortunate turn of events, Digger invents a persona for herself rooted somewhat on truth, and she tells the two young men and women on the boat that her name is Celyn Contrare and that she has just escaped the convent, where her indifferent brother sold her after the death of their merchant parents. Taken in by her story, the youngest and most innocent of the nobles, thirteen-year old Lady Merista Nemaire forms an attachement to “Celyn” and after meeting with her newly returned diplomat parents, offers her a position as her lady-maid and companion. Determined to stay with Meri and her retinue of nobles only until she can get out of Gerse and through the snowy mountains, Digger accepts the position and plays the part of the maid and confidant until the troupe reaches Bryn Shaer, the Nemaire’s imposing and remote castle. But, when the weather itself conspires against Digger’s plans, snowing her and the rest of the nobles in the castle for weeks, Digger is forced to maintain her charade.
And, when the spiteful and cruel Lord Daul catches Digger trying to steal, he uses her skills to his own ends. Daul blackmails Digger as his spy on the Nemaire family and presses her to steal and uncover their secrets – and the deeper she gets into the lives of the snowed-in nobles, the more confusing and frightening the revelations. Everyone – Lady Merista included – has a secret, and Digger finds her lot intertwined with these nobles’ layers of intrigue, betrayal, and double-dealings.
There is something very familiar about StarCrossed. From the uncatchable nimble-witted thief to the traditionalist fantasy environment, StarCrossed seems…tired. At first, the book is hard to get into precisely because these tropes are so very familiar – and given how imaginative Ms. Bunce’s first book, A Curse Dark As Gold, was, the familiarity of this novel was a bit disappointing. That said, for a book operating on such well-treaded territory, StarCrossed is still a highly enjoyable story (once it gets going). In large part, the success of the book rests on Ms. Bunce’s writing style and tone, and her solid – if somewhat simplistic – worldbuilding. The politics of Digger’s volatile world, with a paranoid King, scared of traitors in his midst, is well defined stuff – although the most intriguing aspect of StarCrossed, in my opinion, was the religious divide. The heresey of magic and the severity of punishments for any suspected magic-doing (or “Sarist” loyalties) are beautifully portrayed, related in rich detail through Digger’s informed and assured voice. Also, I must say that I loved that there was no romance angle to the book – Digger does not fall for her gruff blackmailer (thank goodness) – and the more dominant theme is that of loyalty and friendship.
On the character side of the equation, things are a little more simplistic. Digger, while written with a compelling voice and likable enough in her honesty, is a bit bland. The commonplace thief with a secret, harboring a heart of gold underneath a tough exterior is nothing particularly new, and Ms. Bunce unfortunately does not bring anything different to what is essentially a stock character – that is, not until the end of the book. Unfortunately, getting to the book’s final act and discovering these wonderful Digger-revelations takes too long, and readers may give up along the way. Other characters, too, felt similarly two-dimensional and stock, from Lady Merista and her naivete (but with, of course, untapped strength), to the jealous lesser noble, to the caged prince, to the evil blackmailer. It’s all rather…disney. That’s not to say the book is bad – perhaps for a younger YA audience that perhaps is not as well versed in the trappings of the genre, StarCrossed will be better received. The book certainly ends on a strong note, and I’ll be back to see where Digger’s adventures take her next.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the first chapter:
They had food, and plenty of it—the remains of a lavish feast, abandoned halfway through when thirst overtook their appetites. Once I was settled in the boat, Raffin pushed me a tray laden with the carcass of a peacock (I think). I tore a piece of cold meat from the bird and shoved it in my mouth, as much to stop myself from screaming, “Row! Row!” as to quiet the roaring hunger in my belly.
Merista sat across from me as I ate, looking worried. She was obviously the reluctant party in this outing. Raffin had said she was Durrel’s sister, or near enough. Cousins, raised together? It was impossible to tell how important these two were.
“What’s your name?” Phandre demanded.
“Of course it is,” said Raffin, pinching off a bit of my meat.
“Your family name,” Phandre said impatiently.
“Contrare,” I said.
“Never heard of them.”
“I have,” came an unexpected voice. Durrel slid upward in his seat. He had a boyish face and a shock of mousy hair, untidily smashed by his soft cap. “Jewelers, right? Up in the Third Circle?”
“I—yes.” I stared at Durrel. That was impressive, for a family name I’d just made up. He looked back evenly, an unreadable expression in his dark eyes. This was just as likely to be a trap as it was to be helpful, but for now it was all I had.
“Merchants.” I could hear the sneer, even if she hadn’t made it plain on her face.
“Oh, Phandre, leave her alone.” This from Merista. “What happened to you? Did you run away?”
Better and better. I nodded faintly, glancing to shore. Where were the Greenmen? You couldn’t go an hour in the city without seeing one on the nearest street corner—
“Indeed?” Raffin said. “Here, have some grapes. Tell us, what circumstances did the merchant’s daughter find so intolerable?”
“What?” I hadn’t been listening.
“Yes, do tell. Who were you running away from? Arranged marriage? Overbearing nurse? This should be amusing.” Phandre gave a barely-disguised yawn, while Raffin plunged the oars into the Oss and pushed off again. I didn’t realize I’d been holding my breath until we were back in the water and I felt the pressure on my chest lifting. I could almost let myself relax. Almost.
“Go ahead, Celyn, give us your tale,” Durrel said.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Reading StarCrossed reminded me SO much of a book that I love with every fiber of my being: Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
Mara is the quintessential thief-spy-political intrigue YA book, and I don’t think I’ve read another title that even comes close to achieving its level of pure awesomeness (so…with such a high standard for this trope, I suppose I may have been a bit harsh on StarCrossed). If anyone is looking for the best incarnation of this type of book, I strongly urge you all to get Mara. Immediately.
Rating: 6 – Good, Recommend with Reservations
Reading Next: The Scorch Trials by James Dashner