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When I was putting together my list of most anticipated 2021 releases at the end of last year, A Dark and Hollow Star immediately jumped out to me as one to keep an eye on. An urban fantasy billed as “City of Bones meets The Cruel Prince” sounds just up my alley. Throw in an entirely queer cast of characters and set it in Toronto, Ontario – only a few hours away from where I grew up – and I was completely sold. NetGalley kindly provided me with an advanced copy of this book ahead of its February 23rd release, in exchange for an honest and spoiler-free review.
I’ll admit that the main thing that drew me to this book was the setting. I don’t think American readers realize just how exhausting it is to have every book set in the States. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy book set in Canada before, and it was so refreshing. As a Canadian myself, and as someone quite familiar with the city of Toronto, it was cool to be able to recognize little details about the environment. There’s even a part where someone has to explain timbits! I just thought it was a nice touch, and it helped me connect to the story a little bit more.
The fantasy world is also richly imagined, and the plot interesting. One of the biggest strengths of this book, I think, is the way Ashley Shuttleworth manages to craft a fantasy world that’s a little bit more divorced from human understandings of gender and sexuality than you see from most YA fantasy worlds. I’ve noticed that the fantasy genre has lagged a little bit behind the contemporary genre when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation, and I think that speaks both to a lack of imagination on the part of cishet authors and to the need for more LGBTQ+ people writing YA fantasy. Like, you can imagine mythological creatures and a whole different world existing alongside ours, but you can’t imagine a world without gender? Come on. A fantasy world that simply doesn’t vibe with human gender roles is something I’ve been craving for a very long time, and it was very refreshing to get that in A Dark and Hollow Star. I really hope this is the start of a trend in the genre.
Ashley Shuttleworth’s writing is witty and engaging, and their characters well developed. I was invested in all the love stories, the ship dynamics were fun, and I wish there had been more scenes with the full cast of characters together, because I really enjoyed their interactions with each other.
The one complaint I have about this book – which was unfortunately significant enough to bring my rating down from 5 stars to 4 – is that it suffers from what I like to call “first book in a fantasy series” syndrome. Shuttleworth has clearly put a lot of effort into crafting this world, but it’s a very complicated world, and it’s very difficult to understand. All the characters know about the fantasy world from the beginning, too, which makes it just a little bit harder for the reader to figure out what’s going on. The story is also told from multiple points of view, with lots of characters to keep track of, which only adds to the confusion. I’m definitely going to need to re-read it before the second book comes out, because I didn’t figure out what was happening or really connect to the characters until pretty late in the game, and I want to experience the story again while actually understanding the world and the characters.
This isn’t the type of book you can just pick up at the end of a long day and turn off your brain to read. You need to be paying attention, and you need to be ready to sit through a lot of worldbuilding. That’s not unusual for the first book in a fantasy series, though. If you’re in the right mood for it, and you’re willing to power through something that demands you stay engaged the whole way through, I can promise that this book is well worth picking up. I expect A Dark and Hollow Star to be somewhat divisive within the book community, but I think it’s going to kick off a truly excellent series. Now that I’m invested in this story, I cannot wait to see what comes next! I’d recommend this to any fans of urban fantasy who are looking for something that’s a little bit off the beaten path, but that still retains some of the best elements of the genre.
A Dark and Hollow Star comes out February 23rd, 2021.