You ever read something that you really really want to love but can’t? That was Stars, Hide Your Fires for me. I’m a huge sucker for political sci-fi/fantasy, and while I more often read heftier adult novels, I do occasionally browse the young adult section of my local bookstore. From the back-cover blurb to the first few chapters, it really seemed like this one was a shoo-in for me, but ultimately I found it lacking.
Cass is a pickpocket and con artist who grew up on Sarn, a backwater moon in the Helian Empire. Her family is desperately poor, barely surviving by selling salvage and trinkets stolen from the tourists leaving Sarn’s single resort, but she has a plan to get them out: sneak and lie her way into the emperor’s ball, nab as much fancy jewelry as she can while chatting up the aristocrats, then buy tickets to anywhere but Sarn and a lifetime of not having to worry about the next meal for everyone she cares about.
Her plan gets royally messed up, however, when the emperor is murdered just before he was expected to name his heir, and someone slips the evidence into her pockets. Now she’s trapped and has to work with the mysterious Amaris, a member of the rebel Voyria, to find the real killer before it gets pinned on them both.
Best’s worldbuilding is stellar (pun very much intended). “Young Person from Bad Planet goes off to take down the Evil Empire” is hardly the most obscure setup, but there’s lots of detail that gives it a distinctly anti-capitalist vibe that I found very compelling. Sarn is a barren world, reduced to a wasteland by corporations shipping all of their fertile soil off to other planets for private gardens, and its economy is barely kept afloat by a single luxury resort offering exotic vacations to the wealthy. One of the aristocrats Cass steals from is very proud of how she’s saving silkworms by underpaying workers to harvest silk from dangerous spiders that can destroy their hands. The emperor keeps a cadre of exact clones around just so he can have organ transplants on demand. There’s a war going on far away in the background, but this story cares less about the external conflict and more about the internal inequality of the empire, which I really liked.
The plot is promising, but doesn’t quite live up to the potential of the setting. The mystery is particularly obvious in a way that found me groaning in frustration when the characters went after the red herrings. The pacing can also get a bit weird at times—multiple chapters are spent setting up Cass’ situation on Sarn and planning her heist, but when she’s forced to execute her plan early because a dangerous fence found out she conned him, that situation gets pushed past in just a couple pages. This is a pattern that is repeated several times throughout the book, and it makes the potentially lethal threats feel somewhat less lethal by how fast they’re dispatched in favor of moving things along.
Where I felt the book really let me down was the characters. I so desperately wanted to love thief-with-a-heart-of-gold Cass, but while she’s very charming and easily likeable, she comes off kind of flat. I kept expecting what I thought was her fatal flaw—overconfidence despite being in a completely unfamiliar environment—to come back to bite her, but it never really does. She takes risks constantly and most of them just kind of work out. Amaris is similarly lacking a character arc, and by the end of the book I felt like I was looking at the exact same people as I was at the beginning.
The romance is… not really there. In a way, I appreciate that, because the meat of the story where the two are together takes place over what I believe is the span of a few hours, so there’s not really a lot of time to build a meaningful relationship, but the few moments that there are feel just a little forced. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, exactly, but just don’t go in expecting too much.
Overall, I suspect that Stars, Hide Your Fires is, despite what I was hoping, just not for me. I know plenty of people who care significantly less about character arcs and more about cool settings and fun plots, and if that’s what you’re in for I think you’ll probably really enjoy it.
Content Warnings: a brief reference to a side character’s eating disorder early on, police brutality