Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst is the princess story my childhood desperately needed. Coulthurst’s characters are relatable, grow well, and their queerness isn’t the center of the plot–all aspects which make them inspiring. Mare is the strong, “tomboy” princess of my dreams. She shirks the traditional role of a princess within society and within her family, but not at the expense of her nation. She’s as uncomfortable in formal dress–ditching heels as soon as she leaves the banquet hall–as she is confident in her skills in horsemanship, and actively rebels against all the forces in her life saying “be this way!” Of course, I think this is something we’ve seen a lot of, especially in YA and children’s literature, but Coulthurst doesn’t ignore that Mare’s role in the kingdom is not limited to fancy dresses and balls–a princess is an integral part of the political aspects of running a country. Mare, however, isn’t one to settle on making an advantageous political marriage. Instead she’s sneaking into pubs and paying spies for information, working on the ground to better equip her country with the knowledge it needs to succeed, to outwit its enemies, to understand its people. Mare is a strong, badass princess and Coulthurst writes her beautifully.
Denna, on the other hand, strikes a different cord. She is who I related to most–a servant to duty, torn between who she is and who she is supposed to be, and always feeling like her voice is not worthy because of her age and her gender. Denna, coming from her own kingdom and playing the dutiful princess by marrying for political connection, is shy, demure, everything a princess ought to be in the traditional sense. Because Coulthurst writes from her perspective, however, we get to see that this is, for the most part, a facade. Denna, plagued with a magical gift in a country who outlaws magic, is fighting for herself and her future in the ways she knows best, but she is also struggling with closing off those parts of herself that society will not accept. It’s a theme that hearkens to many LGBT readers’ experiences before coming out and I think Coulthurst does a beautiful job of including this without the LGBT portion of the story being the most important part of the story. Denna, and Mare, grow as characters in ways which makes their LGBT status feel secondary – a refreshing way to understand this as part of who they are but not the definition of who they are, which I really appreciated.
Aside from these two, the story delves into some very heavy themes – political alliance, espionage, religious tension, and the power of all these things to alter the decisions of people in power. There’s rebellion and questions about the significance of tradition and belief that had me a bit on the edge of my seat. Coulthurst does a beautiful job of creating a world I would really sink into and characters that made me root for them, were relatable in ways which made me wish my 12/13 year old self had had this kind of validation, but there were parts of the plot which felt a bit old hat. Still, 4 out of 5 stars for sure. I’d definitely recommend it to YA fans and I am anxiously awaiting the sequel, Of Ice and Shadows, which should be coming out next year.
Nichole B-Larson is a library associate at a small Mississippi university. She holds an MLIS, a BA in History, and usually knitting needles. She enjoys all kinds of crafty things, any kind of gummy candy, and travelling with her wife and their two rottenly spoiled dogs. You can find her on Twitter at @kneecoaleye_ <