Space Pirates and Price-Gouging in “Starflight”

Melissa Landers’ 2016 follow-up to her extraterrestrial foreign exchange student trilogy, Alienated, tragically ditches the contemporary element to make a full dive into space-operatic adventure. Starflight is the work of someone with a deep affinity for Star Wars, no doubt, and conveys some of those warm and fuzzy forged-family feelings––but something is undeniably lacking.

Melissa Landers’ 2016 follow-up to her extraterrestrial foreign exchange student trilogy, Alienated, tragically ditches the contemporary element to make a full dive into space-operatic adventure. Starflight is the work of someone with a deep affinity for Star Wars, no doubt, and conveys some of those warm and fuzzy forged-family feelings––but something is undeniably lacking in the plot department as it concerns a rocket-fuel-laundering scheme and some questions of world-building. As a space romp, common wisdom holds that some intrigue should be in store, but Starflight is almost character-driven to a fault: when it does answer act one’s questions, it mostly does so with an emphasis on efficiency and action, leaving much to be desired in the rich details supplementary to character that define works of speculative fiction. And Landers, by swapping out the present-day high school backdrop of her previous series, may have sacrificed her means to a laid-back, high-spirited series opener in the process.

Starflight opens with a promising set of foils: Solara Brooks, whose record is so tarnished and her funds so low that she has to enter indentured servitude on an outgoing vessel, and Doran Spaulding, heir to a gobsmacking technologies fortune and beneficiary of Solara’s dire straits. The dynamic between these characters at curtain is unbridled hostility, pure and simple. It even has a class component, which Landers cleverly teases at when an unexpected conspiracy charge puts the authorities on Doran’s trail and a series of increasingly chaotic decisions on Solara’s part reverse their fortunes and land them both on a sketchy pirate ship en route to unregulated territory. Solara now plays the wealthy heiress and Doran is comically shuffled into the part of servant.

What follows is an elaborate chase across hangars and tourist planets, pursued by pirates, bounty hunters, the government, and all manner of trouble.

If you can lose yourself in it, Starflight is an adrenaline rush of the hyper-speed variety, with just enough ready to crash at the present moment to keep your eyes away from the framework. When it’s not a dangerous trade with ruthless pirates for a much-needed part, it’s the secret a crew member has been keeping that’s suddenly back and wants her dead. The happenings––hijinks, shenanigans, catastrophes––never stop. As high-powered and rip-roarin’ as this setup is, it pries time away from the central plot that really demands the work, and this short term gain ultimately creates an unsatisfying resolution for the ur-hijinks that initially set it all in motion.

Doran Spaulding, no matter how much the burgeoning enemies-to-lovers dynamic demands, is still not entirely off the hook by the time the book resolves his conspiracy charges. This stems from a combination of factors, chief among them the sustained sidelining of this plot until the very end (the ensuing discovery abruptly smacking the reader with no warning) and Landers’ lack of commitment to the lawless and conflict-ridden galaxy she’s created––like cyberpunk, but with an escape hatch. This particular symptom doesn’t make itself known everywhere––Landers is particularly good at emphasizing the daily toll of being on-the-run, from stark spaceship rations to constantly being ready to jolt out of a planet’s orbit at a moment’s notice. Her commitment wanes, though, on a much wider scope.

As the ship where Solara and Doran have taken refuge approaches the outer rim, fuel prices, the work of the Spaulding empire, skyrocket. In one particularly affecting scene, Landers paints a portrait of life in the outer rim that’s downright punishing, but reform, when Doran himself considers the idea, is easy, obvious, and doesn’t present any significant obstacle. The pages spent describing the desperate state of affairs wouldn’t be a waste if these disparities––not to mention the vast gulf in wealth and opportunity between Solara and Doran themselves––were entangled with the fuel fiasco. But as it stands, Starflight‘s backdrop of inequality and infighting fizzles out without being examined. The intrigue that serves as the story’s foundation suffers in the opposite corner besides. As a result, the book’s aftertaste is empty, to a degree. You can almost sense the effect it might have had with a few stronger ties.

But the book is bolstered by a tight-knit ensemble, and one that’s given comparable attention to that of the romance. The crew of the pirate ship doesn’t make for a fast and easy found family, but one that develops slowly and with care––and not without conflict. By all accounts, this gradual and largely auxiliary element accomplishes the book’s most impressive feats of character. It isn’t simply that Landers is generous with the downtime it takes to form a bond: she also puts these platonic relationships through the ringer in a way that only romantic relationships in YA generally earn (if that). Trust is broken, boundaries are breached, suspicions are had. Despite the fact that Starflight adopts the “gritty” space-outlaw aesthetic without ever really paying for it, it manages to be truly charming. This is due almost entirely to the cast: beautifully crafted, and the perfect companions for such a wild ride.

Kiera Cass’ Royal Romance Returns in “The Betrothed”

At first glance, Kiera Cass’ new courtly romance sounds eerily familiar. Hollis Brite, a young woman whose mother is utterly consumed by her marriage prospects, suddenly and unexpectedly becomes the favorite of a member of the royal family.

A Note: This book contains two brief but troubling uses of the word “g*psy,” an ethnic slur used against Romani people. (Some context.) Many Americans remain unaware of its racist connotations, but its use and the surrounding context in this book could and should have been caught and rectified before going to print.

Three leading ladies front Kiera Cass’ lush new romance. Collage by Pippin Hart, with some help by an early 20th century painter. Credits in this post.

At first glance, Kiera Cass’ new courtly romance sounds eerily familiar. Hollis Brite, a young woman whose mother is utterly consumed by her marriage prospects, suddenly and unexpectedly becomes the favorite of a member of the royal family. But––gasp!––her head is turned the other way by an entirely different suitor with far less status, and to come clean is to jeopardize her future and crush the hapless royal’s heart.

Many would quickly dub The Betrothed The Selection reincarnated, only with a dark mirror of the latter’s love triangle where the prideful, old-fashioned Aspen Leger has a fighting chance. Yes, The Betrothed, with its palace antics, dress descriptions, and love story, brushes hems with a few of The Selection‘s ball gowns, but it’s concerned with an entirely different status quo. Where The Selection follows a lower-class protagonist suddenly thrust into the palace and all its oblivion, The Betrothed trains its eye on power’s almost soul-numbing capacities, with a delicate and deeply personal focus, from the point of view of someone raised in the inner circle and poised to go even higher. With an entirely fictitious country, Cass gets to flex some world-building muscles while keeping her consistent charm, and in this long-awaited follow-up, she manages still to criticize the seat of power while assembling generous, full portraits of the people who hold it and the way it clouds their judgement.

There are very few monsters in a Kiera Cass novel, and a satisfying, real-world proxy take-down is nowhere to be seen. She offers instead something far more precious––where it’s the obvious decision in most fairy tales to marry the prince, Cass makes a compelling argument that even with the capacity to make change, even if he’s a generally well-intentioned person, this path, at least for leading lady Hollis, isn’t worth it.

This book, despite its marketing, has far more to offer than romance. In fact, one specific place where it even improves on the work of Cass’ Selection is by way of its friendships. Two vital connections push this book forward, one with Hollis’ lifelong friend at court, Delia Grace, and a visiting royal who proves a tough nut to crack but ultimately yields insight on the position better than Hollis’ own suitor, King Jameson, ever could. Here, without spoiling too much, Cass presents the reality that the arm of a powerful man is, more often than not, an ornamental place, a status that makes it astonishingly easy to be isolated, and hardened to the rest of the world in turn. Cass, through Hollis and Jameson’s courtship––and a vision from years down the line with the visit of another royal family––explores some of the consequences that have nothing to do with the easier targets of corruption and debauchery. Consequences like the pain of being silenced, the indignity of being on display. None of the people ultimately behind these consequences are made to be truly evil in Cass’ work. She allows almost every major character the luxury of a soft side, from King Jameson’s genuine but miscalculated attempts to be a good suitor, to the miserable past and desperate practicality of Delia Grace.

Delia Grace, who’s spent most of her adolescence clinging to Hollis’ side, has suffered the slings and arrows of a scandal-rocked family, and Cass truly puts the calcified result of her situation into perspective. Where Hollis can consider whether the king’s attention will ever make her happy, Delia Grace has to sit to the side quietly, where she would’ve been beyond elated to be granted that same status and stability, no consideration of true love to be made. She’s like the Charlotte Lucas of The Betrothed, with a bit more bite, and like Charlotte Lucas, she takes a magnifying glass to our lead and shows us that romantic love, in a society like hers, is a consideration most cannot afford to make.

Hollis, when paired with these enlightening friendships, emerges as a character who’s multi-faceted, but also very broadly defined by her inexperience. She doesn’t know love until it hits her in the face from the direction she isn’t supposed to turn, she fails to consider Delia Grace fully most of the time, and she generally lacks the concerns anyone from her situation would lack: of the poor, of other countries, of other people. But because The Betrothed throws her through the loop so much, it reveals a kind of beauty to this approach, one that runs through all of Cass’ work. We see it in the rash decisions her main character makes in The Selection‘s sequel, The Elite, and with Hollis’ general deferment to the best interests of a rich young woman in search of a safe and easy hand to wed.

The love stories that take up a sizable amount of the book (but not all) are a fast-paced and tantalizing look at Cass’ character work, positioning Hollis between the safe, known royalty, and the risky, frowned upon, much lower-status match. Besides some very quick development in her relationship with the underdog, Silas, both love interests do precisely what love interests should. They expose the flaws in the manner of thinking she’s been raised with: follow status, climb as high as you can, ignore any feelings otherwise. Some bold choices Cass makes near the end add some welcome complication to the argument, but it rings all the same. Now, the choices of the heart Hollis makes must exist beyond the love interest, entwining more with family, honor, and obligation than the same choice might have in The Selection. A closer look at her past books, however, equips The Betrothed‘s forthcoming sequel with ample material. As always, following one’s heart is the obvious answer in Kiera Cass books. But it’s fixing to get a lot more complicated.