Hold Back the Stars follows Carys and Max as they float in space with only ninety minutes of oxygen left in their tanks, nothing left to hold onto but each other, and no hope of being rescued. With earth far below them, they think back over their relationship, and the love which led them to challenge the rules of their society, and eventually to the hopeless situation they find themselves in now.
The story is set in Europia, a society in the future where countries that survived nuclear war have pulled together to create a world of unity, no borders, and no cultural barriers. In order to achieve this, individuals are ‘rotated’ at regular intervals, shuttled all over the world so that they no longer ‘belong’ to any one country, and instead build relationships everywhere they go in the world. ‘Individualism’ is a central value, with individuals acting only in their own name, and not for or on behalf of their country or government, and the most important aspect of this value for Carys and Max is the Couples Rule. This requires that individuals stay single until their late thirties at the earliest before they settle down and start a family. However, when they fall in love, Carys and Max begin to challenge this rule, a decision which sets a chain of events that ends with them floating in outer space, waiting to die.
This is a simple story of boy meets girl, set in a futuristic world of space travel and utopian ideals of diversity, unity, and individualism – all great virtues, although they have backfired to prevent true freedom. I really enjoyed discovering the different aspects of Europia, especially because Khan didn’t bury the story under heavy or unnecessary details, and only gave us that which was necessary to understand the story so that it didn’t become buried under information. I found the world to be a realistic idea, and the details which Khan did give us made it seem like a genuine possibility for a future society. I also liked that Europia was not revealed to be an evil society but was a genuine attempt at a utopia that the characters all believed it to be. It made the world that Katie Khan created feel subtle and nuanced, letting the romance take centre stage.
The novel is split into two time frames. One story shows Carys and Max’s relationship evolving on earth, and the other shows them struggling in outer space as they try to figure out whether they can find a way to save each other. I liked that both stories were equally gripping but in different ways. The romance was more human, showing the highs and lows of the pair’s relationship. In space, each chapter is led with how many minutes the pair have remaining to live, adding an aspect of suspense, and we are gripped by the ways that Carys and Max try to find a way to survive. I was impressed that Katie Khan managed to make these two stories work so well together, because I expected one of the two to fall flat.
The only point at which this novel felt less than brilliant was the ending, which confused me as it completely stepped away from the structure that the rest of the novel had followed. To summarise, Katie Khan gives us three alternate endings to the lack of oxygen dilemma, each showing us different aspects to the world and characters. My issue was that this just didn’t fit with the book overall, and felt out of place. To make things even more confusing, the three endings weren’t clearly signposted as alternate endings, but rather I had to figure out what they were for myself, so when I began reading the second option, I was wondering whether or not my copy of the book had printed the same chapter twice by accident.
Overall, Hold Back the Stars was an enjoyable read, with a well-developed world and interesting love story at its core, but the structure of the ending of the book made it difficult to enjoy completely for me. Perhaps if the multiple endings had clear headings explaining what they were, I would have felt more comfortable, but as they were the reading experience felt confusing and muddled up.