7 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Starglass by Phoebe North

Starglass (Front Cover)Title: Starglass

Author: Phoebe North

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: July 2013
Hardcover: 448 Pages

Terra has never known anything but life aboard the Asherah, a city-within-a-spaceship that left Earth five hundred years ago in search of refuge. At sixteen, working a job that doesn’t interest her, and living with a grieving father who only notices her when he’s yelling, Terra is sure that there has to be more to life than what she’s got.

But when she inadvertently witnesses the captain’s guard murdering an innocent man, Terra is suddenly thrust into the dark world beneath her ship’s idyllic surface. As she’s drawn into a secret rebellion determined to restore power to the people, Terra discovers that her choices may determine life or death for the people she cares most about. With mere months to go before landing on the long-promised planet, Terra has to make the decision of a lifetime–one that will determine the fate of her people.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned duology

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the author

Format (e- or p-): Print

Why did I read this book: I love science fiction, especially YA science fiction, and I’m a huge fan of Phoebe North’s blog and reviews. OF COURSE I was excited for this book – especially after we hosted the cover reveal for Starglass last year.


Liberty on Earth. Liberty on Zehava.

After an asteroid is detected on an unavoidable collision course with Earth, humans scrambled for desperate alternatives to survive after the planet’s inevitable destruction. The best and brightest, the genetically sound, the rich and the powerful take to the stars, aboard different ships with different missions – the Post-terrestrial Jewish Preservation Society-funded Asherah amongst them. For five centuries the Asherah has traversed the void of space, gliding its way to Zehava, a hopefully habitable planet millions of miles away from Earth. It is on this ancient, tired ship that Terra is born – grown from a genetically engineered soup, as all children are in space, and raised by a loving mother, father, and older brother. When Terra’s mother dies, however, of a mysterious old Earth disease (cancer), her father becomes a taciturn man with no comfort to offer his youngest daughter, seeking solace instead in the bottom of a bottle.

As Terra’s sixteenth birthday approaches, she is assigned an occupation like every other child, though she could care less about ship politics, advancing her bloodline, or her bleak future – but when she witnesses a man’s murder at the hands of the Captain’s guard, everything changes. Aboard the Asherah, all is not well – a rebellion is simmering, and as the starship reaches Zehava’s long-awaited orbit, Terra must choose a side, and fight for her own survival.

The debut novel from fellow book blogger, the prolific Phoebe North, Starglass faces a number of big obstacles at first glance. Science fiction novels with teenage protagonists aboard generation ships making their way across the universe (usually in some terrible physics-violating way) are ubiquitous – more often than not, the “science” in these books is nonsensical or mere backdrop to focus on some corny romantic entanglement in outer space. Similarly, many books in this subgenre typically feature the same type of general plot progression, i.e. a special-but-ordinary (and usually white) teenage girl faces off against a unanimously power-drunk, singularly Evil, dimensionless authority figure or regime. Lather, rinse, repeat over the course of a protracted trilogy. Needless to say, when I started Starglass (just as when I start any new YA science fiction novel) I was apprehensive, but hopeful. And you know what? North’s debut does a wonderful job of subverting some of these familiar tropes and delivers an entertaining (and thankfully laws-of-physics-abiding) science fiction novel with a few interesting twists. While it’s not without its flaws, especially with regard to pacing and the development of main character Terra, I very much enjoyed Starglass.

Starting with the excellent: the science, the vision of this particular starship, and the many issues addressed in the book. Well, I won’t say much about the science other than it makes sense, and I liked Phoebe North’s take on a deep space starship, giving it an earth-like appearance beneath a domed roof that mimics the seasons and gradually accustoms its passengers to the type of day/night/season cycle aboard Zehava.1

More important than the science fiction elements is the actual vision of society aboard this ship – easily, this is the most successful aspect of Starglass in my opinion. I love that this is a book set aboard a Jewish-funded and run generation starship, a wonderful break from the so many homogeneously Caucasian and vaguely Christian SFF novels in this subgenre, especially in the YA space. Aboard the Asherah, church and state have gradually morphed into one, the goals of the powerful ship’s Council inextricably tied to tenets of a modified version of Judaism. I love the complexity of this society, and the trappings of faith v. governance; as the Asherah has been centuries in space, the social contract between leaders and citizens are ever-shifting, with the role of religion taking on an increasingly prominent role within this bell jar society.2 Similarly, I love the portrayal of the inevitable schism between the casts – between the upper echelons of council members and the important specialists, versus the menial labor positions, the artisans, and the shop keepers. That such rebellious sentiments, with the Children of Abel, would exist and cycle through the Asherah‘s long journey is certainly believable, as is the paranoia that comes with such unrest. My only qualm with this particular storyline is that all the reveals feel incredibly rushed at the end of the book (although I do very much like the reveals and Terra’s gradual understanding/realization of the Big Picture).

Also on the excellent spectrum, I love that North’s book actively examines sexuality, sexual orientation and reproductive rights. Aboard the Asherah, every citizen is required to get married to a member of the opposite sex, and to produce two children (although these children are birthed of pods à la The Matrix), all within a strict legally outlined time frame, beginning at age 16. But what happens if you are gay, or if you have no desire to raise children? I love that these realities are examined at length with main characters, and that there are no easy answers. Finally, I was thrilled and so happy to see that the question of passion – i.e. teenagers having/wanting sex – is also presented in Starglass. Chaste kissing and handholding is wonderful, but also patently ridiculous – I love that Terra has physical yearnings and dreams, and that she acts on these desires (as do other characters).

While Starglass does an amazing job with these different aspects, the book is not without its missteps. Most importantly, from a character perspective, Terra is a bit of a mixed bag. I like a flawed heroine that makes mistakes, but it’s hard to care or be interested in this particular heroine’s arc because she’s so… passive. Terra begins the book without any drive or direction, caring for nothing except drawing pictures of flowers (where do the colored pencils and paper come from?), and staying as far away from her home as possible. Of course, she also is predictably very, very pretty despite her complete disinterest in the way she looks, and has no trouble snagging the eye of the superhot future captain of the ship. Almost everything that happens in Terra’s story happens TO Terra, pushing her along a path where she reacts to situations instead of taking control of her life. The characters overall felt slightly stilted and lacking grit and depth, although I do like that everyone is of ambiguous morals and natures – Terra’s father, for example, is verbally abusive (physical abuse is alluded to, but never really seen) but also clearly loves his daughter. Their relationship is complicated, and I like that, but it also feels underdeveloped and unclear (the latter not by intention).

Also on the negative side, the book grapples with huge issues and layers, but isn’t quite able to synthesize all of these disparate parts successfully – the writing is simplistic, and the book takes a little while to actually take shape and progress (in large part, this is also colored by Terra’s passivity as a protagonist). While I do like the many issues examined by Starglass, it feels overly expansive and, like its heroine, lacking direction. And, as I mentioned before, the ending of the book is incredibly rushed – within the last 20 pages of text come huge reveals, in stark contrast to the 400+ pages of slowly meandering plot. (This is great fodder for book 2, but also very frustrating for readers of book 1.)

Still, these criticisms said, I thoroughly enjoyed Starglass and whole-heartedly recommend it, especially for readers who may feel similarly burned out on YA Science Fiction. I’ll certainly be clamoring back aboard the Asherah for book 2 – is it 2014 yet?

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 5:

The next morning I hustled across the ship, pushing my sleeves up over my hands and listening to the clock bells strike out the quarter hour. It wasn’t entirely my fault that I was late, of course. The labs were practically a world away from the grimy port district where we lived. To reach them, I had to make my way through the commerce district, then the fields, then the pastures, then cross the narrow footbridge between the library and school. The concrete buildings that housed the labs rose up out of the ground near the far wall of the ship.

I made my way through the winding hallways, smiling nervously to the other specialists as I passed. They hardly noticed me as they rushed by, white coats streaming. When I finally reached the door to the botanic lab, I hesitated.

Truth be told, when I pressed my hand to the panel by the door, I hoped, for just a moment, that the door would stay shut.

No such luck. It slid away, revealing metal floors and walls. Everything would have been gleaming if it weren’t for the junk everywhere. Metal shelves reached up to the ceilings, but the books had begun to topple off them. Waterlogged papers spilled off a row of steel tables like leaves. And there were plants everywhere. Vines curled out of pots of soil and from planters overhead. Little trays of seedlings were stacked along the floor. Open bags of fertilizer steamed heat into the cool air.

The lab smelled like disinfectant, soil, and heady pollen. I wrinkled my nose.

“Hello?”I called, as the door slid closed behind me. I walked carefully, doing my best not to trample any of the books that were set open on the floor. For a moment there was no answer. But then I heard movement near the rear of the lab. A woman hovered over one of the desks behind a massive monitor. The computer terminal looked like it wasn’t often used. The keyboard was strewn with papers.

The woman was sharp-eyed, with gray-threaded hair cropped close to her head, and a hook-shaped nose. And she was tiny—much shorter than I was, and slender, too, though her coat fit much better than mine. It had been taken in at the waist and sleeves, tailored to her. I watched as she squinted down into the long tube of a microscope, her expression a sort of grimaced wink. She didn’t acknowledge me standing there, waiting.

“Um, Rebbe Stone?”I said, clearing my throat. “I can come back later if you want.”

She waved a hand at me, but her gaze didn’t move from the microscope. “Don’t call me ‘Rebbe’! The Council might think they can make me teach you, but they can’t force me to be as formal as all that.”

I chewed my lip. “You didn’t request me?”

“Bah,” Mara said. “‘Request.’ They’ve been trying to strong-arm me into retiring for years. They think you’ll be my deathblow. Sit down!”

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: The Dark of the Moon by Susan Beth Pfeffer

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  1. As Phoebe writes for the Intergalactic Academy, and is *always* attuned to the science in the books she reviews I never doubted that she’d do a bang-up job with the sci-fi aspects in Starglass.
  2. Are you also a worldbuilding nerd and want to learn more about the Asherah? Check out Phoebe’s extensive notes on such geekery HERE.


  • Patricia Eimer
    August 12, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Okay this sounds really good.

  • Thea
    August 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Patricia – It is really good! I hope you give it a shot.

  • Paige
    August 12, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    I had similar issues in terms of Terra’s character and the pacing, but WOW, did I ever love the worldbuilding and the plot development, so yeah, I’ll absolutely be back for book 2, and will recommend this to friends as well. Thanks for articulating both the strengths and the challenges so clearly.

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