Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Hold Back the Stars – Katie Khan Review


Rating: ★★★★

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.

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Windhaven – George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle Review

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Rating: ★★

I’m a massive fan of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but like many others, I’ve been impatiently waiting for the next instalment for years and years. So, I decided to give George R.R. Martin’s other books a chance, and picked up Windhaven when I found it in a secondhand bookshop. I was really excited to see what else the mastermind behind Westeros had come up with, but Windhaven just fell flat to me.

Windhaven is set on a world made of various islands, and communication between these islands is effected via ‘flyers’, who fly on wings made of a special fabric. These flyers are selected from an elite group of families, who pass the wings onto their children. However, Maris of Amberley, a fisherman’s daughter who is adopted and raised by a flyer, is furious when her stepfather takes the winks from her and gives them instead to her younger stepbrother, his natural born son, despite her being the better flyer. She is so angry that she begins a revolution of sorts, sparking a series of events that changes the course of her life, to allow flying to be an option to everyone in Windhaven.

One of the things that I liked about Windhaven was the insight into various times in Maris’s life that we get. The first third of the book shows her as a young woman, when she protests against the elitism of flying and asks for access to wings to be based on merit rather than birth. In the second third, Maris is a teacher in one of the schools that she has helped to set up, teaching children born to non-flyer parents how to fly so that they may compete for wings. The third and final part is a now elderly Maris, injured so badly while flying that it marks the end of her lifelong dream. While I feel like it is done in a somewhat disjointed way, by the end of the novel I enjoyed seeing her growth and the bigger picture of her life.

However, there were issues that I had with this novel. As I said, I feel like the plot was quite disjointed, and this is made worse by the fact that the three parts of the novel don’t share a real uniting overarching plot. Rather, each one feels more like a standalone story.

Further I really didn’t understand the world and feel like the world-building was lacking. It was only by looking at the blurb of the book that I understood that Windhaven was another planet, that humans crashed their spaceship on, and that flyers’ wings are made from the materials of the spaceship, hence explaining why the wings are so rare and difficult to acquire. I think I might remember this vaguely being told at one point, but if it was told, it was told in such a boring way that I barely acknowledged it. This was an issue in much of the world-building – it was told via info-dumps, political-style speeches, or just otherwise in a way that was just distracting me from the plot, and desperate to find it again.

Overall, I really wish that I could say that this fulfilled my desire to find something to compete against Game of Thrones, but it didn’t feel at all like it George R.R. Martin was behind it at all. This book was frankly, boring, and although there were aspects that I liked to a degree, it wasn’t enough to salvage the slow, disjointed, and difficult to wade through plot.