The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne, a review

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…

Cover for The Actual Star. (isn’t it beautiful!)(image: a cave banded with blue vertically into a triptych with a star at the center)

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.

A Memory of My Father

My mom was telling me recently that dad was doing some recent advocacy work by calling the conference office and asking them to include the resources that the multicultural committee he serves with had worked on in their list of anti-racist resources. As a followup, he called the leaders of the committee, to let them know that their work was going to be included (and in fact, the bishop highlighted their work in a later communication). 

On the phone, the Black female leader told dad that she appreciated him for this specific act, and for his continued acton within the conference over the past three decades.

And said, yes, we’ve seen that work, and that’s why you were black-listed. 

It’s a heck of a thing to be recognized for, getting missed and skipped and excused and pushed to the back over and over and over again in a system of white cronyism. 

Fourteen years ago, dad and I went driving to a landscaping company and asked if we could have three hundred stones, and the person was like, these? That are super expensive? Or those, the run-of-the-mill river stones. And we said, those, can we have three hundred? How much will they cost? And the guy was like, oh, those? Those I’ll just give you. 

So dad and I bent over in the rain and picked out three hundred smooth stones so that members of his congregation could take them and put them as a foundation on the land where the church was building a new property. But then he was moved, and the new pastor that moved to that place listened to the guy that nearly gave dad a heart attack and that place that we prayed over is not united methodist anymore, even though it is a place where the people of God worship. 

I’ve lost count of the number of stories like that about my dad. 

But he doesn’t stop. He also makes it in the paper as the faster pastor, and the running community defacto chaplain. The savannah mayor knows who he is. The imam and the rabbi know who he is and are glad when he is with them. 

The work we do isn’t glorious. It is hard, and relentless, and never-ending and doesn’t earn us praise or a better salary or institutional recognition. But that doesn’t make it not worth it. It is worth it. We just gotta keep showing up. 

The Gloaming

Last night the gloaming was exceptionally beautiful. It’s one of my favorite moments in the day, especially after a rainstorm. The sun is setting and the world becomes golden and everything glows. The moment is perfect for photography, lights emerge and highlight what has been hidden, greys become silver, greens become verdant, and the impossible seems possible. 

Its what I think of when I imagine that magic is possible. Creation takes on a glow and shines. 

I grew up with stories of magic that ranged from Tolkien to Ms. Piggle-Wiggle. From the magic-filled dreams of the BFG to the transformative power of the witch in The Beauty and the Beast. Even Santa Claus had his own magical pomegranate seeds that helped him deliver his gifts each year. (Persephone, Much?) 

Stories about magic allow us to imagine a new world in the place of the one we inhabit. They allow us to think beyond our normal constraints and imagine a place where all we need is a wand or the power of our will to transform the world. 

But the magic in the stories wears out. The carriage returns to a pumpkin at midnight. 

The power active in the BFG is really in the courage of the small orphan Sophie rather than in the dreams cast by the giant who catches, blends, and carries them. The stories teach us that our power comes from our ability to imagine a better or different world. 

I believe in magic insofar as it is that sign that with the proper application of will and the unification of force, we can change the world. 

I’d rather carry a wand than a weapon any day. 

Creating Our Family Story

My husband and I are preparing to usher a new life into the world in about five months. Baby Bryant is coming. We are getting ready to expand our family and share a whole host of new things with this new little person on the way. Among the host of preparations, considerations, alterations, decisions, and worries associated with becoming parents, I want to make sure that we pass on traditions that we cherish from our own families.

One of the traditions of my family is going to really interesting places. This may be as part of a really long trip on a vacation, or as simple as making a set of memories as we go away for a weekend or as short a trip as a picnic. I remember specific picnics that we took while I was a child on Sunday afternoons, the meal already prepared before church, then carried out to the edge of a lake at a bench on the side of a hill at Callaway Gardens. I remember going on a camping trip to Amelia Island so we could watch the full Lunar eclipse. I remember trips to the High and the Cummer Museums to go look at poignant paintings and sculptures four feet across made of ribbons and feathers dipped in wax.

But there were longer trips that I cherish as well. We loved going to Colonial Williamsburg, more than our trip to Disney. There was more to do, more to see, more to learn, and really, there were not as many people there, which made it all the more better. We were delving into history, learning the steps of the old dances and the stories of the people who created our nation. We traveled to California to learn about the westward expansion of the nation, and drove up the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping at Big Sur to see the waves, in the forest to walk among the Redwoods, and at Monterrey to watch the seals flop around. We traveled down the Florida coast to the Keys, and went sixty miles west of Key West, to the Dry Tortugas. We camped on the beach (again) and listened to the waves (and the cars on the highway) lull us to sleep.

I want to be able to share these kinds of memories with my child. I want to learn what different things my husband loved to do, what we want to create for our own family, what memories we have to share with this new thing, this new family we are creating. We are creating a family, and a family is held together by its common story, by the narrative that we weave together. We will take our different parts, the memories of each of our families, and create something new together.

Improvising on Instructions

So, how often do you read the instructions? Do you follow instructions? Following instructions is really all about being able to determine if they are really necessary, or if you can… improvise.

One of the running jokes in our household begins after I have prepared a meal from a recipe for the first time. I’ll sit down and say, “I followed the recipe.” And John will reply, “But…” And yes, I will have to say, “But I changed a few things.”

Every time.

I take liberties with the phrase: To Taste.

To taste. I immediately make it my own, and leave the source material. I’ll go back, make notes, and know what I want to do next time. The notes actually are more for John, if he ever decides to cook whatever it was. Because he has to follow the recipe.

I learned to cook from my mother, who frequently makes things up. And I learned to improvise when I had limited resources in the developing world. I can make just about anything, and only a few things make me hesitate.

But what about the rest of the world. What about when I leave the kitchen? There are jokes about following the instructions on a VCR, but we don’t have VCRs anymore. And if you get something from apple, you literally get a card of paper on how to plug it in and what the buttons are, and then a link to all the help material online.

Use it, figure it out, the instructions are really only guidelines anyway.

So, what about things that don’t come in boxes? Do we have instructions for them?

Often, the Bible is referred to as Life’s Instruction Book. For those of us raised on improvisation, and never trusting the instruction manual, that phrase really doesn’t do us much good. The phrase mind you. If we wanted a set of rules, of directions on where to go and what to do next, we could just as well go to the I ching (sic).

But the Word of God is worth more than an instruction manual. The Word: it’s about the story. It’s about the love of God and the story of that love poured out, continually, over and over and over again.

It’s a thriller, a romance, a mystery, a foundation epic, a war report, a collection of missives to communities of faith, and a love letter. The Word of God found in scripture is so much more than an instruction manual. It is the beginning of the sharing of the story of the grace that continues to be poured out on the world.

See, the story doesn’t end with the last page.

The last page is an invitation to begin telling the story your own way.

Instead of instructions, we receive an invitation. And that invitation is not to a set of rigid rules, but a life filled with grace and love and community. What a gift. What a blessing.

We are invited into a life of improvising into God’s Love, remaining faithful to the Source, to the Word, but able to share the love in our own personal and authentic way. That’s a story worth following.