REVIEW: The City of Stardust by Georgia Summers

Reviewed by Dave Oei

Georgia Summers’s debut novel The City of Stardust blends urban and high fantasy into an adventure that spans the English countryside, the continents, places hidden beneath and around us, and the mystical world of Fidelis, a land filled with equal parts magic and horror. It’s a story of a young woman, Violet Everly, who has inherited a family curse and is hell-bent on averting it. Failure means her death.

Violet’s adversaries include, among others, a mysterious woman named Penelope who wields insurmountable power; Penelope’s reluctant, heat-starved assistant Yuri; and one particularly hungry ancient god chained under the floorboards of a cottage somewhere in France. Then there’s Aleksander, another of Penelope’s assistants who is Violet’s age, handsome, and charming—but where are his loyalties, and will Violet uncover them before she falls for him?

On the cusp of turning twenty-one, Violet must find her missing mother to break the curse hanging over them, or else Violet’s life will be forfeited. This challenge is revealed to her in fragments laid out piecemeal from the book’s onset, when she’s only twelve. Living alone with her tight-lipped Uncle Ambrose in a remote English mansion with no television, Internet, or interaction with others has meant Violet is always in the blind. She poses many questions that go unanswered: To where did her mother vanish when she ran away? Who is Penelope, and what power lets her condemn Violet to death? And why are her uncles afraid of this woman?

Stardust unfolds through a variety of voices including Penelope’s, Yuri’s, Violet’s Uncles’, and even Aleksander’s. It leans most, though, into Violet’s and her exasperations and how lost she is in this sea of questions. But since Summers makes the narrative decision not to reveal the answers upfront through the points of view of the varied characters, we too are lost. Withholding so much information doesn’t always sustain the book’s momentum without also irritating readers. When placed into Violet’s shoes, we share her grievance; the veil hanging over these secrets cultivates empathy. Accordingly, when Violet runs away to seek answers on her own, her newfound sense of freedom feels that much more palpable and hard won, likely because it has become our shared journey.

But Violet appeals as a character for other reasons. On her quest to unravel the curse, alone for the first time, the odds appear stacked against her. But Summers renders her as headstrong, sharp, curious, and eager. Violet has read everything in her home’s library, has peppered her uncles with questions about the world, and is a keen observer, like of Penelope when the woman pays an unexpected visit. At only twelve, Violet notes, “It’s like she was wearing a mask… Like the person we saw wasn’t her at all. Who is she?”

From that young age, Violet identifies traits adults tend not to voice or consider because of politeness or social norms, but her uncensored observations endear her to readers. In addition, Violet’s expression of vulnerability and anxiety turns her apprehensions into concrete metaphors, such as when she describes the last year of her quest as feeling like “time breathing against her ear, pressing a knife into the small of her back.” This is a tangible sense of urgency which, together with her initial frustration, her naivety, and the intimacy she shares as the stakes rise, make Violet a compelling point of view.

Complementing her perspective, there’s Aleksander, the boy Violet first encounters at the age of twelve and again when she’s twenty. From the moment they meet, there is an instant chemistry, and in the second encounter, Summers sprinkles in hints of romance, describing how Violet’s heart pounds and how she focuses on his eyes. But when Summers offers Aleksander’s point of view, readers understand this might all be a ruse. What follows is a romance-like dynamic that twists and churns with the plot—allowing readers to get comfortable is not in this book’s DNA.

There is nothing easy about how Aleksander and Violet’s relationship unfolds—is it a friendship, a romance, both, or neither? The duo suffers from a tug of war between their desires and their rational needs, but the book never strays into the realm of spicy romantacy (romance and fantasy), a subgenre that has recently exploded, most notably with Rebecca Yarros’s Fourth Wing and Iron Flame books. Instead, the culmination of their relationship swirls around whether they can close each other’s emotional gaps. It’s a more delicate need than lust alone, but equally significant. Accordingly, the resolution calls for nuance rather than explicitness, and in this, Summers delivers.

With a tense plot, a delicious chorus of voices, and subtle, poetic prose, The City of Stardust is an ambitious undertaking, especially for a debut. This harrowing adventure across multiple worlds unfolds into a gripping story about the power of friendship and empathy, love and forgiveness. In the end, Summers’s novel suggests that life is less about accepting the hand one is dealt, and more about pursing a truth, a dream, and a place among the stars.

Dave Oei is a writer, a student at UC Riverside’s Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing, and the manager of his wife’s veterinary hospital.