When it comes to YA, one of my favourite kinds is the sparkly-dresses-and-marriage-contest kind – think The Selection for the perfect archetype. So I was really excited to hear about The Stars We Steal, which combines those tropes with a space setting and draws inspiration from Jane Austen’s Persuasion – and it was everything I wanted it to be!
Book: The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Titan Books. All opinions my own.
I saw this billed by someone as Persuasion meets The Bachelor in space, and while it definitely fulfills that description, it’s also a fully developed story in its own right. The story makes use of the bones of Persuasion, and there are some fun little nods to it, but it’s enough its own story that you don’t need to have read any Austen to enjoy this. Leo, our main character, and Elliot, her love interest, fall into the roles of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth respectively – they were previously briefly engaged, but broke up due to his relatively poor status, and when they meet again after a long separation, he has made his fortune and is now perfectly eligible for her, apart from the awkward matter of their broken hearts. At its most basic, it’s a plot arc that works perfectly for YA, and allows the author to fill in the gaps with a fun sci-fi setting and some interesting new elements.
I really liked the near-future setting. It’s set around 200 years from now, after Earth has become uninhabitable. Humans have been in space for around 170 years, living on spaceships that represent the now defunct countries and regions of Earth. There’s an obsession with the past among the upper classes: they wear antique clothing, have rooms decorated in antique styles, and even go so far as to have a ‘season’, a whirlwind of balls and social events, which was a staple of 19th century dating. Here the Valg Season is held only once every five years, rather than every summer, but it serves much the same purpose for the unmarried youth – it allows them to meet, mingle, and decide who they’d like to marry. I really enjoyed how this old-fashioned tradition was combined with more futuristic aspects. Dates take place on space walks and in the digi-deck (which, cough, owes nothing to Star Trek’s holodeck), and there’s an app that allows you to communicate with potential partners and rates your compatibility. It’s a fun and witty look at how dating has both advanced and regressed in this future world.
The characters are a lot of fun. Leo, our heroine, is practical and smart (at least, book-smart… Not necessarily people-smart). It was interesting having her relationship with Elliot affected by their past without us having seen it – I thought this made it a lot easier to like her, though it made him a little inscrutable. As Leo is the only narrator, we don’t get to see a lot of Elliot’s true thoughts, and though I was deeply invested in their romance, it was mostly for the sake of Leo’s happiness, rather than his. The secondary characters absolutely make the book, from the infuriating Klara, to Leo’s perfectly-annoying-but-also-lovable little sister Carina, to the charismatic Evgenia, and more – there’s a wide mix of types of people and it’s really fun to watch them interact. Leo’s snobbish father and grandstanding aunt are very enjoyable caricatures too. It’s also pretty diverse from a queer point of view: Evgenia is a lesbian, her brother Max is married to another man, and we also have on-page asexual rep (plus the author has said that Leo is demisexual, though not labelled, which comes across well). I liked that even in a book so heavily focused on marriage and matchmaking, there was no homophobia and people of all sexualities were accepted.
Though the romance is central, it’s definitely not the only focus of the book. Leo’s family finances are in tatters, and she has been attempting for a while to sell an invention that could save their fortunes, so that’s a major subplot, as is the tension around the upcoming election for ship’s captain, a role currently filled by Leo’s aunt, who is a perfect skewering of a smarmy politician. A minor subplot involves protestors from the lower classes trying to gain attention for the appalling conditions in which they live while the aristocracy throws these grand balls and lives in luxury – I actually found this quite disappointing as it never really goes anywhere. Leo is framed as an idealist who wants to help these people, and Elliott, having experienced life as a servant as well as a rich man, is uniquely poised between the two, but although the issue of class inequality is made to seem like it will be a big deal, ultimately it has almost no effect on any of the characters’ day-to-day lives. It felt thrown in, almost as if it were an awkward apology for writing about the shiny aristocratic life – “look, I am acknowledging poor people but quick let’s get back to the story”. I see why it’s there, but this isn’t a dystopian take-down-the-ruling-classes novel, so it comes across a bit awkward. Anyway, once you get to the last quarter of the book, the plot races along really quickly, and doesn’t let up until the end. If anything, it ends a little abruptly, but you’ll definitely have fun getting there.
On the whole, The Stars We Steal was exactly what I wanted it to be – a fluffy, fun, exceedingly YA romp. The sci-fi setting definitely brings something new to the classic YA matchmaking plot, and the whole thing is just really entertaining to read. Four out of five cats!