Starswept by Mary Fan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I met Ms. Fan at Farpoint 2019 at her booth after seeing some of the panels she was on. We started talking about her books and I was intrigued and put this book and Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon on my To Read list. I also started following Ms. Fan on Twitter, and from getting to know her via tweet, she has put a lot of herself into this book: She went to college for music and has original compositions on her site: https://www.maryfan.com/songs.html. There are silks performances in the book and Ms. Fan is currently attending classes to get better at performing silk (Cirque de Soliel type stuff) routines.
As for the book itself, let me start off with non-spoilery stuff. First off, as you can see, I gave it 4 stars. So if you like YA science fiction and are willing to stretch your definition of what can be in SF, you will probably enjoy this book. This book is very focused on the performing arts aspect of our protagonist, Iris Lei, with mostly backgrounded science fiction elements until the latter parts of the book. And it never becomes hard SF. Again, if you’re OK with that, I think you’re in for a real treat.
The book has a slow start, which can be tough for some, but I think it’s important for many reasons: it really drives home how dedicated to the craft Iris Lei and her fellow students at Papilio are; it serves to really highlight Iris’ relationships, which is a KEY plot point in the second 60% of the book; and it really makes us crave the inevitable scene change, allowing Ms. Fan to really make that an emotional hit.
The only thing that was a bit of a miss for me was Iris’ love story plot points. I don’t have any problems reading YA, but the further I get away from it, the less I can truly relate to the relationship woes of the main characters. Intellectually, I know it feels like it’s the most important thing when you’re that age. But knowing how much it’s not just takes me out of it.
I think the novel comes together well. It was clearly written as a trilogy (almost nothing is resolved at the end of this book), so we’ll have to see how it all works as a narrative, but I liked the story.
OK, Spoiler time now. The rest of this’ll be spoiler-filled so I can better talk about the plot. You should have everything you need to know above about whether to read the book if you can’t stand any spoilers.
The plot has a lot of similarities to A Planet for Rent by Yoss, but with a different set of metaphors. A Planet for Rent was, obviously, a metaphor for a post-Cold War Cuba with the Aliens serving as the First World and the way they treat the Cubans. Starswept felt to me like it contained two separate metaphors. Part 1 of the book clearly seemed like a metaphor for college debt when doing a degree in the arts. The Papilians LIVE for their performances. Some may have more or less intense feelings than Iris Lei, but they seem to all be doing it for a love of performance. Yet, just like in real life, most people who are awesome musicians are not going to be in the London Philharmonic (assuming there’s good pay that comes with that prestige). Some will end up in orchestras where they need a spouse to support them. Many will end up teaching the next generation. And nearly all will end up with crushing debt they don’t have the ability to pay back. But, as long as they’re not starving, the joy of performance may outweigh the financial issues.
Starting in Part 2 of Starswept, the narrative changes to a slavery metaphor. I was a little torn about what the best real-world analogue was. On the one hand, we eventually discover an Abolitionist movement and the characters are treated as little more than objects by the Adryil. So that would seem to point to African slavery of the 1600-1800s. But then there’s the aspect that the Earthling performers are being told they’re getting a better life and their government is complicit in understanding that they’re being sold into slavery. This points to a couple potential sources. The simplest, of course, is modern slavery. There are people right now who were told they should go to the USA, Japan, or the UAE to get better jobs. Once they get there their passports are confiscated and they become slaves and/or sex workers. There may also be a tie to how the Chinese workers who came to the Americas were lied to. They were shipped over to work here and then told they needed to pay their way back, but were paid such a low wage that they were stuck here. This leads to many Chinese populations in the Americas, including the Chinese population in Cuba. Either way, while we have lots of foreshadowing that things are not what they seem (especially once Damiul starts teaching Iris how to not be mind-controlled), I think Ms. Fan does a good job of portraying how bad things can go for those who are unknowingly sold into slavery.
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