Book Review: Starglass, by Phoebe North

If you love speculative fiction with a Jewish twist, which I do, and no, this is not a niche interest, damnit, Starglass is a must-read. North’s novel is compelling, delicious, fascinating, and elegantly brushed with Jewish life and culture in a way that gives it great depth and complexity. Don’t let me mislead you: this is not a book about the Jewish experience, or the Jewish people, but it’s in part about what happens when people attempt to keep some Jewish traditions alive over centuries of space travel, and what remains when a tradition is fragmented, censored, and partially destroyed.

In some ways, Starglass reminds me of The Sparrow, another book about space travel in which people live in close quarters for an extended period of time on their way to a new planet, a foreign land filled with things they don’t know about yet that will face them with challenges they cannot even begin to imagine. The Sparrow had a much more compressed timeline for the pioneers on the ship, but both texts shared the trait of exploring the complexity of human interactions, love, and religious faith at the same time they wove utterly mesmerising stories about people venturing to far-flung places in search of answers and some sort of affirmation.

And in both cases, the human players find more than they expected.

Terra has spent her whole life on board a ship hurtling towards Zehava, the planet her people think of their promised land. Generations ago, they left a dying Earth in search of a new home, and this is it—but first, they have to overcome considerable barriers to get there, and they live in an extremely rigid society that has minimal tolerance for rulebreaking or dissent. Everything must be kept orderly, or they won’t survive, and they all accept and understand this. Their culture has held together only through firm rules and even sterner enforcement of them.

She’s assigned a job as a biologist though she longs to be an artist, and spends her life trying to manage her alcoholic and depressed father, arrange a suitable marriage before a spouse is assigned to her, and discovering that all is not well on her homeship, no matter what she’s been sold over the years. When she sees something she shouldn’t have one night, Terra is plunged into a resistance movement, one that will force her to make extremely difficult choices, and she will be put to the ultimate test to prove her worth to the movement, and to the people.

The world of Starglass is very intricately and beautifully woven; North really sets the scene amazingly well and brings life on board the ship into vivid colour for the reader, in addition to creating the framework of a plausible explanation for how the ship is built, how it moves, and how it sustains itself. Everything on the ship is carefully regulated, everyone has a job, and the culture of the ship is one of service and sacrifice, because its residents see that as being the only way to successfully reach their goal, but is it? Some members of the resistance aren’t so convinced, arguing that more freedoms are necessary to maintain a transparent, healthy society.

Terra is forced to grow up extremely rapidly in this text, making it a classic coming of age novel, and North compresses a lot into it considering that it’s the first book in a planned series. Terra is strong of character, ferocious, and powerful, but she has her sensitivities and weak points too, making her into a very balanced character; at times, my heart aches for her because she’s dealing with so much, and at others, I give a fistpump for her because she’s showing people that she won’t be pushed around and she’s tired of being treated like she doesn’t matter.

Love and sexuality play very important roles in Starglass as Terra grows into herself and confronts her own society. Despite the relative conservatism of her people, it’s generally considered acceptable to spend a lot of time with your intended, and perhaps to push at the limits of acceptable behaviour; but what’s not acceptable is homosexuality, viewed as both selfish and morally wrong because men and women are expected to procreate to ensure the persistence of humanity through the generations. She comes up against both of these issues along with polyamory in the book, which makes me really excited because I love it when texts are queered, and I’m really excited about the amount of polyamory creeping up in YA right now, illustrating a big trend shift because it’s historically been a rather taboo topic in mainstream commercial fiction.

This is not, in other words, a tame coming-of-age novel.

The worldbuilding here is so rich and intense that North has a lot to play with in future books in the series, especially since she’s opening up a whole new world with the arrival at Zehava, where her characters will be confronted with an entirely new environment and entirely new people—the native race on a planet that is supposed to be uninhabited. Given the tensions on board ship as people face down their destinies, I think we’re in for fireworks in the next book as the residents of the Asherah grapple with the fact that they are not alone, and that colonising an alien planet will not be as simple as they were led to believe.