Disclosures and content notes:
First, I read this as an electronic ARC from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions my own.
Second, I am a patron of Monica Byrne and have been financially supporting her work for at least five years, and part of that has meant that I have known about this book, her writing process, and the journey to publication more deeply than any other book I’ve ever read. (I really value this, and her transparence with her patrons, but I know it has influenced how I approached the book.)
Third, for content warnings, there are descriptions of self-cutting, human sacrifice, and other contemplated violence.
So, now that’s out of the way…
The Actual Star is an interwoven single story about three different timelines each separated by a millennia. Taking place across the world and specifically in Belize, we weave through 1012, 2012, and 3012, each moment at the end of an age and on the precipice of a new one.
There are 3 central characters in each of the timelines, each distinct and individually voiced. I always was able to find my way in the story, and even when we picked up after a cliffhanger (basically the experience of the second half of the book) I was able to follow directly into the timeline with the writing.
Often, in stories where there are multiple narrators or sections of the world to follow (cough The Two Towers cough Song of Ice and Fire cough) I’ll find myself wanting to skip ahead to my favorite characters. I’ll have a story I’m more invested in even as the tale continues elsewhere. This is not the case here.
With these interweaving stories, and the way they are related, and the lore that Byrne has built into this world which is so deeply textured it engages all my senses and whole body, I always wanted to know what was next in each of the timelines.
I am in awe of how Byrne has created a new religion, with streams of orthodoxy, heresy, and ideals, and so she can speak to how we make foes out of people who are so closely aligned with our own values, but off, only by a margin.
Our disputes for life are about the degree of that margin.
This book reads like a soft blanket. It reads like an invitation into a new world. It feels nostalgic while also being innovative. Clearly, Byrne has been influenced by writers like JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, NK Jemisin, Octavia Butler, and Kim Stanley Robinson, but this influence is more about scope and the way one is immersed into a story, than narrative directives.
Byrne’s writing is clear, beautiful, elegant, and evocative. I frequently found myself reading a description, and thinking, well, I’ve never heard it that way, but now I have a very clear picture in my head. She writes phrases that should become cliches because of how perfect they are. Her writing is clear and consistent throughout. My only space for wonder about style is whether each of the primary characters could have been differentiated by varied voicing, but I don’t think the story needs it. Byrne’s prose is graceful and poetic, deeply detailed, layered, and textured.
This is a book the world needs right now. It’s about our imagination for our future, how our past can impact our present in surprising ways, and how perfection isn’t the same as community.
This is a story I’ve never heard before, but it felt like coming home.
It releases in September… you can preorder it now.