This science fiction debut is so incredibly special, friends. I didn’t expect to adore these characters, but here I am, utterly attached and wishing it wasn’t a standalone novel so I could go on more adventures with them.
About Tarnished Are the Stars
Publisher: Scholastic Press | Release Date: October 15, 2019 | Pages: 372
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy | Format: Hardcover | Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
A secret beats inside Anna Thatcher’s chest: an illegal clockwork heart. Anna works cog by cog — donning the moniker Technician — to supply black market medical technology to the sick and injured, against the Commissioner’s tyrannical laws.
Nathaniel Fremont, the Commissioner’s son, has never had to fear the law. Determined to earn his father’s respect, Nathaniel sets out to capture the Technician. But the more he learns about the outlaw, the more he questions whether his father’s elusive affection is worth chasing at all.
Their game of cat and mouse takes an abrupt turn when Eliza, a skilled assassin and spy, arrives. Her mission is to learn the Commissioner’s secrets at any cost — even if it means betraying her own heart.
When these uneasy allies discover the most dangerous secret of all, they must work together despite their differences and put an end to a deadly epidemic — before the Commissioner ends them first.
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My Review for Tarnished Are the Stars
Narrative style: third person | Perspective(s): multiple (Anna, Nathaniel, Eliza)
This science-fiction debut is so incredibly special, friends. I didn’t expect to adore these characters, but here I am, utterly attached and wishing it wasn’t a standalone novel so I could go on more adventures with them.
“There was nothing quite like the first tick of a new heart.”
The book instantly sucked me in with its opening chapter, situating the reader within the world and providing so much backstory in an easily digestible way. It starts at the operating table; a young boy named Roman needs a mechanical heart to stay alive. Lucky for him, they are outside the walls of the Settlement and the life-saving technology is available to him.
“In Mechan – their hidden village of outcasts – tragedy hung in the air like fog. It was their maker, their neighbor, their constant companion.”
You see, Earth was destroyed by the technology created by humans. The government vows to not repeat the mistakes of the past and bans all forms of technology. But some of the people who live in Earth-Adjacent are sick with heart disease called Tarnish. The only way to survive is with the very technology that is forbidden. I love the way the world-building is unfurled for the reader: it’s engaging and easy to follow.
“Tech is dangerous! We destroyed Former Earth with technology. […] Tech is dangerous – it’s potential is dangerous.”
There are three points of view, and each of their perspectives feels distinct from one another.
💖 Anna, also known as the Technician, is a mechanic who defies the Commissioner’s ban on technology by providing aid to those in need via a clandestine black market system. Anna is queer (potentially bisexual or demisexual, but the representation is not explicit).
💖 Nathaniel is the Commissioner’s son, and all he wants is his father’s approval. But his father is as rough with his son as he is with his laws. Nathaniel is aro/ace.
💖 Eliza is the Eyes of the Queen, a spy and assassin betrothed to Nathaniel. But marrying him is the last thing she wants to do because she is a lesbian, but is a means to an end for her.
I love books with uneasy allies and conflicting goals, and Tarnished Are the Stars does this well. I love and will die for these characters. Thor did an amazing job developing three-dimensional characters who each have their own goals and development arcs. But not only that, they act like the teenagers they are, impulsive in their pursuit of achieving their goals only to have to suffer the consequences. I like how the characters have clear wants and needs, their decisions not always being the best but clearly in line with achieving their goals. Even when its at odds with conscience. And consequence. There are real stakes.
“Once made, a mistake cannot be unmade.”
I like it when characters are confronted with their privilege and their eyes are opened to the reality of the world outside of their understanding. I found Nathaniel’s character development to be particularly compelling for me as he struggles to reconcile what he has grown up to believe with what he learns in the course of the book.
As much as this book is about technology and finding the cause for Tarnish, at its heart it is a book about identity. All three of our characters are in the process of finding themselves, figuring out who they are. There’s a particularly touching scene between Eliza and Nathaniel about sexual identity that will resonate with anyone questioning or trying to find out where they fit. The three of them are so accepting of one another’s identities and supportive of their own journeys in that regard, which is truly special.
“‘Maybe it’s silly, but having the vocabulary to describe what I felt made me feel less alone, made me feel like I’m not the only one.'”
In addition to the aro/ace representation in the book, this book also shines with its disabled rep. Thatcher is in a wheelchair and Roman lost one of his arms in a surgery accident when he was younger. Neither are depicted as weak or less than. In fact, when Anna shows Roman a mechanical arm that she’s making for him, he is confused as to what he would even do it and asks if he is broken in some way. It is a touching and nuanced discussion on how sometimes the best of intentions can send a rather harmful message, and I appreciated Anna’s internal dialog when she is confronted with this reality.
“‘He calls us Tarnished, as if we’re somehow less than – as if it’s an insult, not an illness.'”
I appreciated the theme of the cyclical nature of history and humanity not being trusted to not make the same mistakes. This should come as a surprise to literally no one given my obsession with Battlestar Galactica, one of my notes in my book is all of this has happened before and will happen again.
The book shines with its characters and tight pacing, but I was left wanting a bit more in the worldbuilding department. Thor did a fantastic job describing the Tower, tech, and Earth Adjacent, but I would have liked more of the history to sell me on why tech was banned to begin with and how TICCERs are installed. There was a description that sounded almost like a metal door in the chest with wires? IDK, that sounds kind of difficult to hide.
Tarnished Are the Stars is a beautiful science fiction debut with the characters at the heart of its tale. In the various kinds of love we experience as well as the different kinds of strength we all possess. I loved the world that Thor crafted and the steampunk elements, as well as the discussion of the positives and negatives of technology in a world destroyed by it. The question explored in this book is “are we as a species capable of learning from our mistakes, or are we doomed to repeat them?” and I loved Thor’s take on this central question in the genre.
Representation: aro/ace rep, (potential) bisexual/demisexual rep, f/f relationship, lesbian rep
Content warnings: parental abuse (verbal and physical), death of a child, murder
eARC provided by Scholastic via Edelweiss in exchange for my honest review. I have since purchased a final copy. Quotations are taken from an uncorrected proof and may not match final publication.
Have you read Tarnished Are the Stars yet, or is it on your TBR? What other books would you recommend with queer representation?