Review of A STAR SHALL FALL by MARIE BRENNAN
(third in the ONYX COURT series)
“Science is King, but Magic is Queen.” The tagline on the cover of A STAR SHALL FALL succinctly captures the evolving theme of the ONYX COURT series. In the third book, set another century ahead from the last in the 1700s, a modern sentiment seeps into this historical fantasy. As science and ever-sharpening human curiosity spread their influence throughout London, the rest of England, and the entire world, the fey find it increasingly difficult to understand their place in an unpredictable society.
Foremost at the center of faerie concerns is the return of Halley’s comet where they banished the insatiable dragon from the last book. Scientific predictions suggest that the comet will come close enough to earth for the magical beast to resume its fiery greed and feast on the Onyx Hall. The fey become much more innovative in their desperation to stop the dragon. With help from mortal science and other cultures, they defy tradition by reaching past what they know and accept as the limits of possibility. As in many other works, scientific advancement rings with the cautionary truth that most gain comes hand in hand with sacrifice. Once a potential solution is found, the question remains whether or not the sacrifice is too immense.
The book is divided into seven parts, each of which opens with a short passage in the dragon’s perspective, who is not so much evil in mind as by nature. Rather than the typical villain, a closer comparison would be a predatory animal that can’t be reasoned with if it intends to eat you. In its way, this is even more threatening. Like most villains, the dragon lives for selfish purposes, thinking of itself before all others. It will destroy the Onyx Hall and every faerie foolish enough not to flee in time as nothing more than one, gluttonous meal. Appealing to any sense of decency, pity, or any other emotional salvation isn’t an option. The final showdown with the dragon at the end of the book is riveting.
Irrith, the country sprite from book two, plays a greater role in A STAR SHALL FALL. She’s not accustomed to the underhanded scheming of the court, which makes her an easy pawn for the manipulation of anyone who knows how to play her. She likes to think of herself as perceptive to these false friends, but the reader is more likely to predict what Irrith’s artless (at least politically) nature misses. On Lune’s side, she remains so desperate not to be her predecessor Invidiana that she once again misplaces her trust and discovers disloyalty where she least expects it.
Brennan presents us with another romantic subplot unique from the previous books. Galen, the newest Prince of the Stone, walks into not a love triangle but a love square! Three women pull his heart in different directions. First, there is the faerie he loves. Adores might be a more apt word as his besotted, unrequited affection smacks more of adolescent obsession than anything with real depth. Second, there’s the woman who seduces him, also a faerie. The fling reminds the reader that faerie love is characterized by two distinct rules: faeries choose who they love and thus cannot fall into love unintentionally as do mortals and second a faerie can only ever love once. While Galen’s lover toys with the possibility of giving her heart to a mortal man, she recoils from so grand a sacrifice and recognizes it could all be for naught if he cannot overcome his devotion to another. Third, there’s the mortal woman Galen must marry. At the start of the book, he has no particular woman in mind, but if he wishes to secure a happy future for his beloved sisters then marriage isn’t an option but a necessity. When he does settle on a specific mortal woman their relationship is bittersweet. While they lack either the passion of body or of heart found in his other relationships, a strong level of respect and admiration builds plenty of tension between the two.
The book is peppered with many more intriguing subplots, including one about the mysterious death of the last prince, Hamilton. All other mortal princes ruled at least a few decades, but Hamilton died only six years after becoming the Prince of the Stone. This mystery is easy to dismiss, seemingly insignificant compared to more important issues, but the unexpected explanation near the end ties together a stronger understanding of one of the book’s main themes: when scientific advancement moves faster than our own understanding, the toll can be colossal.