Review: Written in Starlight

Written in Starlight by Isabel Ibañez
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

This is a hard review to write because there were things I greatly enjoyed in the first book in this duology, Woven in Moonlight. In Ibañez's first novel we are presented with a young woman, Ximena, body double for the Condesa Catalina, who has been indoctrinated into the belief that her people, the deposed Illustrians, are the rightful leaders of Inkasisa. Ximena isn't that likable at the start of the story, when she poses as Catalina, who is being forced to marry the Llacsan leader Atoc, a man of palpable cruelty, in order to try to free some of Catalina's captured people. Ximena is open-minded enough, possessed of sufficient magic, and quick enough on her feet to absorb the counterforces around Atoc who oppose and want to overthrow him, in order to install his kinder and justice-loving sister Princess Tamaya in his stead. Ximena and Tamaya become allies. Ximena learns the flaw in any leader can be abuse of power, and of their people. It goes without saying that Catalina views Ximena as a traitor to the Illustrian cause. Frankly, if one heard her say a single time more that she alone was the rightful queen of Inkasisa, one wanted to smack. Catalina refuses to accept Tamaya as the rightful queen. With little choice other than killing her directly, Tamaya, as a favor to Ximena, sends Catalina out into the jungle, a possibly less direct death sentence. Ximena's lover Rumi escorts Catalina and tries to provide her with good advice and provisions. This is where Written in Starlight opens.

Catalina has always been a grating character and she is no less so in this novel. She largely ignores what Rumi tells her, gets lost, almost gets killed by a jaguar, and is ultimately saved by her former guard Manuel, who had left the Illustrian camp three years before. Catalina and Manuel have known each other since they were children and it's only natural that this would become a continual back and forth bodyguard and charge/liege love scenario that would occupy hundreds of tiring pages in this novel. So be it. It's YA and there is an element of romance in the first novel in the fantasy, as well. This romance, however, quickly wearied me. I hoped Manuel would run for his life, but no... In any case, it's merely the backdrop for Catalina's brash determination to get the other indigenous people of Inkasisa, the Illari, to give her an army to back her claim to the Inkasisan throne from the first group of indigenous people, the Llacsans. (FYI, the Llacsans are the Incans, the Illari are the Quechuans, and the Illustrians are the Spanish conquistadors.)

The handling of Catalina's interactions with the Illari is so classically colonial as to raise one's hackles. The Illari track Catalina and Manuel all over the jungle as they doggedly seek the mythical Paititi, the Illari city of gold, and its leader Sonco. Sonco eschews the title king, though Catalina continues to call him that even as she ponders marrying him and becoming his queen as a route to get his army to depose Tamaya. Luckily for Catalina and Manuel, an Illari seer, Chaska, cousin to Sonco, is part of the group tracking them, letting the jungle and the goddess Luna determine the worth of their hearts and causes. Even Chaska is flummoxed that the jungle seems to have some use for Catalina, surely the most annoying protagonist I've seen in a while. This entire section of the novel just made me grit my teeth, as Catalina thinks the Illari people are living wrong, worshipping the wrong gods (not just Luna, the Moon, but also Pachamama, the Earth, and Inti, the Sun, oh my gosh!) and not realizing that she, Catalina Quiroga, is the rightful queen of Inkasisa. (How dare they!) I found myself asking a lot of internal questions about #ownvoices writers who yes, are Latinx, but who also represent the force of colonialism so clearly (if not damningly) depicted in this novel. Catalina views herself as the Chosen One, both by birth as an Illustrian, and by her ability as a seer, via connection to her goddess, Luna. And the thing is, by the end of the book, in true (Spanish colonial) white savior fashion, Catalina is the reason the Illari are saved. Her character has the slimmest of redemptive arcs, when she finally acknowledges that maybe Ximena was onto something and a solipsistic belief in her place in Inkasisa might be in error. Frankly, overall I viewed her as an anti-heroine of sorts.

Written in Starlight is also less creatively magical than the first novel. The pacing of this novel dragged miserably for the first third of the book, then drags the reader through Catalina's embarrassing plans while on her way to, and in Paititi, as she struggles with whether she loves Manuel more than her megalomaniacal plans to take back Ciudad Blanca and overthrow Tamaya. (Oh, tough call...) In the final fifth of the novel, we get to the rapidly put-together reason some of the jungle is dying and creatures are (literally) ripping apart Illarians. The moon magic involved was just so sketchy and the denouement so fast, and honestly, if it takes a deus ex machina situation, like being possessed by a goddess, to get your central character to see sense, I think you've got some plot shortcomings.

Ibañez is still a young writer, and this novel, no doubt finished at the start of the pandemic, on a tight schedule, is clearly not the best of her abilities. She's put a great deal of herself into this duology and shown that she can be creative, both visually and in her worldbuilding. I view this novel as one in which her editors did her no favors. Where was the sensitivity reading about indigenous issues, Page Street? If the publisher is going to tout diversity, they should be prepared to look at diversity in greater depth.

I received a digital review copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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