"The Actual Star" review


Title: The Actual Star

Author: Monica Byrne

Subgenre: Science fiction, Literary fiction

2021 Bingo squares: Published in 2021, Cat squasher, Self-published, Nonbinary character (hm)

Recommended if: You want an experimental, weird novel

Not recommended if: You want a linear plot, easy-to-follow worldbuilding, or typical high fantasy

Stars: 3.5/5


Note that this novel has a major content warning for self-harm, specifically cutting/bloodletting, primarily but not exclusively in Maya religious ceremonies.

The Actual Star takes place in three timelines: past, present, and future. The past timeline is set in 1012 and follows Mayan twins Ixul and Ajul, about to inherit an empire. The present follows Leah, a half-Maya girl who grew up in Minnesota and wants to travel to Belize to learn about her heritage. And the future timeline follows Niloux and Tanaaj, who have opposite beliefs about their religion, Laviaja. The past timeline is magical; the present, realistic; and the future, primarily science fiction.

It’s made apparent almost immediately that Leah’s life has somehow inspired the core tenets of the religion Laviaja, and more details are revealed as the novel progresses; the relevance of the past timeline’s events become clear later on as well.

The book is a mixed bag; its format and bold worldbuilding choices make quite a statement, but at the same time, it falls short in a lot of areas. As is often the case with mixed-timeline, mixed-point-of-view plots, when you take a step back, you realize that almost nothing actually happened in the story; it’s relying on the whole being significantly greater than the sum of its parts. But in this case, the individual stories are so simplistic, and particularly the Maya past one, that I’m not sure the novel quite managed to achieve that greater whole.

The biggest problem stems from the fact that the novel is quite difficult to read.

Native English speakers could understand the gist of Kriol if they concentrated, and she was concentrating hard.

This quote is true, and it leads to one of the most frustrating parts of the book: in the present-day setting, there is a ton of untranslated Kriol:

“Ah tel yu bwai,” Hector pressed. “Yu du it, yu geh gud, yu repyutayshan spred, yu noh wori bowt no uman agen. No uman wahn chroa yu owt. Aal a di uman gwehn brok dong di doa wid dehn shain op punani sayin, ‘Frank, eet mi.’”

It’s readable. Barely. You can’t really just skip all of it and still understand the entire plot, though I did skip as much of it as I thought I could get away with, because it was so frustrating.

There’s also a decent amount of untranslated Spanish; I speak enough Spanish that for me this wasn’t a problem, but I think anyone who knows zero Spanish at all will feel like they’re missing out on something, even though the Spanish is mostly casual greetings and farewells.

Was this novel worth reading? For me, yes - but I read so much that one novel that wasn’t necessarily a pleasant reading experience but did something structurally interesting isn’t a big deal for me; it took only a day or two to read, and I’ll read at least a dozen other novels this month. If you’re looking for a unique experience, for sure check it out - but I can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

Cover of The Actual Star

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River is a MediaWiki developer and admins Leaguepedia. This blog contains her fantasy novel reviews.