Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No additional consideration was offered.
Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a fascinatingly layered debut novel that integrates Indian folklore with a world of fantastical elements and a deep streak of the macabre, making it a particularly delightful read for those of us who like eerie, creepy, bloody, crawly things. If macabre things aren’t your jam, it’s still worth taking a gander at The Star-Touched Queen, because while they’re an element of the story, they’re not overplayed or used for continual shock value, and the book is nowhere near as intense as the works of authors like Dia Reeves and Brenna Yovanoff when it comes to gore.
Maya, a young princess of a kingdom that’s struggling as opposing forces besiege it from all sides, is cursed. She was born under a dark astronomical configuration and it’s made her a figure of fear and hatred for as long as she can remember — until her father seizes upon the expediency of using her as a political tool, marrying her off to forge a political alliance. That marriage leads her down the path to Akaran and her enigmatic husband, Amar, opening mysterious and strange doors in a kingdom she’s expected to rule at the age of 17.
As she explores the mysteries of her new kingdom, she becomes embroiled in a complicated plot that weaves around and through her, making a series of choices that are rather ill-advised. Since I don’t want to spoil things for you, I’ll let you discover those decisions on your own when you read it, because I really do strongly feel that you ought to pick up a copy. Luckily for you, it recently came out, so you can pop on over to your independent bookstore and live the dream.
There are a couple of things that are really notable about The Star-Touched Queen. One is the storytelling: I am not, I freely admit, well-versed in Indian folklore and that’s something I would like to change (book recommendations welcome!), but it’s clear that Chokshi’s work introduces traditional stories throughout. At the same time that it references ancient traditions, it doesn’t do so in a way that’s so confusing it’s impossible to follow — while I may not precisely know the nature of some of the monsters in the book, for example, I get that they are monsters and that they play important roles in the narrative. It’s a mode of storytelling I greatly enjoy, one that upsets Western attitudes about which stories should be told and how — this is an English language book published in the United States, but it’s not making accommodations for white readers. Reading The Star-Touched Queen makes me want to explore traditional mythologies and stories, which is precisely as it should be.
At the same time that she utilised mythology and folklore from India to great effect, seamlessly integrating it into the text, she also drew upon references to Western stories. I was really struck by some parallels with Bluebeard as Maya wanders the halls of a vast palace with scores of mysterious doors, repeatedly warned that some remain closed to her with good reason. There are hints and glimpses of other legends familiar to Westerners as well, in a story that really incorporates multiple cultures in a way that reflects the world we live in, where people and stories are not isolated and closed from each other.
The language of The Star-Touched Queen is also incredible. It’s a very lush, vivid book with stellar descriptors, languid, elegant prose, and glittering scenery. In a world where YA is often much more casual and conversational, I’m excited to see more literary fiction entering the genre and doing well, putting paid to the notion that YA is only ‘simplistic’ — and there’s nothing wrong with casual, conversational language! But I like seeing books like The Star-Touched Queen and the works of Sarah McCarry challenging traditional norms about the style of writing that younger readers like and can process. The Star-Touched Queen is super accessible and it doesn’t insult teens by acting like they can’t read something with big words or complicated sentences, and I hope we see more like this in the future.
Last, but not least, the delicious gore. Chokshi really strikes a great balance here, integrating blood and death throughout the book without making it overwhelming or numbing. Blood and themes of blood ties are both very important things in the context of the book and the legends that surround the characters, as is death, whether we’re talking about blood sinking into the earth as people battle or people forging bonds with blood or walking on the burning grounds where people are cremated.
I absolutely love macabre and gruesome books, but I’m actually not a huge horror reader — I am super picky about the precise manifestation of macabreness in my books, and The Star-Touched Queen hits the right note. It’s not horror, but it does delve into deep, dark, hidden, complicated parts of the self and the world. It takes a very good hand to walk the careful balance between gratuitous and overwhelming violence, and artfully crafted elegance — think Freddy Kruger versus Hannibal — and Chokshi has that hand.
I’m super excited about this debut and future work from Chokshi, whether it captures a similar ethos or goes in a completely different direction to demonstrate the range of her craft. Definitely pick this book up if you haven’t read it yet, and plan to settle down for a solid weekend with it, because it is a very engaging read.
Image: star, Tom Hall, Flickr