An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows
“It’s all right to be lost. How else can we find ourselves?”
“Apathy breeds more evils than defeat. Keep fighting.”
An Accident of Stars (2016) is the new portal fantasy by Foz Meadows and the first book in the Manifold Worlds sequence. The book contains all the magic, adventure and excitement in a land far removed from our own that characterises the best fantasy. However what sets An Accident of Stars apart is Meadows’ commitment to capturing humanity in all its complexity. The novel avoids both the moral simplicity of traditional epic fantasy and the bitter cynicism of the worst excesses of grimdark, to portray a fictional world full of well-rounded characters and peoples with conflicting interests and agendas. The book is effortlessly diverse, containing characters from a variety of backgrounds, genders and sexualities.
Meadows explores the psychological fallout of the events of her story in depth, examining the physical and emotional trauma resulting from armed conflict, the guilt at having made a decision that has affected the lives of many, or the difficulties with being taken out of one’s own world, undergoing a profound transformative experience then being sent back to one’s everyday life. Throughout the book, it is the depth and likeability of her characters, and her commitment to these characters’ emotional journey, that make this such a satisfying read.
Saffron Coulter just wants to thank Gwen Vere for sticking up for her, but winds up accidentally following her through a magical portal into Kena. She learns that Gwen is a worldwalker from Earth who during her original visit was responsible for helping put the manipulative and dangerous Vex Leoden on the throne. Under his divisive reign Kena is sliding ever closer to civil war. It’s up to Gwen, Zechalia, an orphan in the service of an exiled matriarch from Veksh, and Viya, Leoden’s escaped consort, and their motley band of allies to find a way to depose Leoden and restore the peace. But as the conflict unfolds, Saffron finds herself at the heart of events, and may have a more important role to play than she realises.
Meadows’ cast of largely female characters cover a range of ethnic backgrounds and sexualities, eschewing clichés to demonstrate the variety of roles inhabited by women, and different approaches to femininity. Yasha, the old exiled Vekshi queen, is formidable, cunning and manipulative, a powerful plotting politician who nevertheless is concerned with the best interests of the people and those she cares about. Kadeja, the Vex’Mara, ruler with Leoden, is also a ruthless schemer but by contrast only has her own lust for power and revenge at heart.
Gwen is more caring and nurturing, acting as a mentor-like figure for Saffron and concerned for all the younger girls’ safety and well-being. However she is plagued by her guilt at helping Leoden gain the throne and cynical about her own efforts to undo the damage she helped cause. Her friend, Pix, shares her guilt and cynicism over her role in Leoden’s rise but has a past as a brilliant courtier. Trishka, Yasha’s daughter, is a portal magician whose power is too great for her body to contain.
Of the younger girls, Viya is a spoiled runaway consort who has to grow up fast in order to save her family and her people. Zechalia is a precocious orphan with mottled skin and a gift for word magic who has daring and original plans to save the world. And Saffron is an Australian schoolgirl frustrated with the social restrictions placed on her because of her gender in our world. These are all intelligent women, with a range of moral codes and priorities, capable of changing the worlds through their ideas and actions, but able to fight out of necessity, none of whom are dependent on male characters for their identity or agency.
An Accident of Stars explores themes of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. The cast is ethnically diverse – characters from Kena such as Pix and Viya tend to have dark skin, whilst the Vekshi have lighter skin. Gwen is a black woman from Thatcher’s Britain, and there is a powerful moment where Gwen tells Saffron that she feels more at home in the alien world of Kena than she ever did in a racist and intolerant Britain.
Much of the appeal and power of fantasy comes from its ability to imagine a world different from our own, and while Meadows takes care to show us that Kena is far from a utopia, with social and political prejudices and problems of its own, An Accident of Stars reminds us that things don’t always have to be this way. The Shavaktiin, the religious order built around the sacred nature of storytelling, tell us as much in the book. Kenan marriage embraces bisexuality and polyamory as a social norm. Gwen is happily married to a man and a woman and the three of them have raised a child together.
The book is particularly strong in its representation of bisexuality, with Saffron as a bisexual who has a relationship with Yena, a trans girl and Trishka’s daughter, as well as being attracted to Matu, Pix’s brother. Yena is accepted as a woman by all the characters, and her femininity is never called into question, save by the rules of the corrupt and obstructive Asasha’s Knives, and this is implied to be more due to the magical nature of her surgery. Matu, though he has a heart of gold, acts a little bit like a stereotypical cad, and when Saffron asks Trishka if she needs to be worried around him, Trishka explains that consent is seen as a very serious issue in both Kenan and Vekshi society and that while rape does happen in this world it is not tolerated. These aspects of the book demonstrate with aplomb that you can still have all the courtly intrigue and warring kings, queens and princesses so beloved of fantasy while at the same time imagining a world that is not defined by the same problems, prejudices and social limitations of our own. Fantasy can be used to explore and critique problematic issues rather than contribute to a social climate that perpetuates them.
Like much fantasy, An Accident of Stars is set in a time of conflict, and has its fair share of battles and fight scenes. However Meadows does not glorify violence; she explores how war and violence are traumatic events, especially for children and young adults thrown into armed conflict for the first time. Meadows is not afraid to wound and scar her characters, and unlike in many books, they carry the physical and emotional pain with them long after the battle has ended.
In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (1950) C. S. Lewis had no problem with portraying Peter’s first kill as a grand coming of age moment; by contrast, Saffron is horrified when in the heat of her first battle she kills an enemy soldier and her horse. This is a much more relatable and realistic reaction to that situation, especially for a modern, first world teenager with no first-hand experience of war. Similarly, the wounds Saffron, Viya and Zech receive in the battle require urgent medical attention and time to heal, and all leave scars. Treating the consequences of violence with respect make the conflicts feel more real, and remind us how high the stakes are. Meadows is aware that the psychological consequences are frequently as long lasting and debilitating as the physical ones; Saffron needs help and support to recover from her ideal, and Viya suffers a post-trauma flashback when threatened with a later attack.
Saffron’s scars, first accrued when she meets Kadeja at the fountain in Karavos near the beginning of the book and added to through battles and trials throughout, serve as a physical reminder for another thing most portal fantasy stories gloss over: she is undergoing a profound, life-changing experience that she will never be able to satisfactorily explain to her friends and family once she returns home. Usually in the excitement of adventure the protagonist’s family is forgotten, or through time magic any effect is negated; both Gwen and Saffron are acutely aware that her parents will be going through the nightmare of having their child disappear without a trace every second she is away. When she returns, she will either have to lie to them or be thought insane. They will never be able to share or relate to this pivotal experience in her life. Each of Saffron’s scars symbolises another life-changing experience she will never be able to share with them.
This should give an idea of the sheer range of ideas and elements An Accident of Stars is juggling; what makes the whole thing work is the strength and elegance of its character arcs. Every one of the main characters grows and develops over the course of the novel, and, while the book leaves many elements open for the sequel, because each character has gone on an emotional journey it is a satisfying read in and of itself. Viya escapes from Leoden out of a sense of self-preservation, but as she begins to experience and understand the wider world outside of her cosseted upbringing. She is able to mature enough to control her temper and petulance and to be able to bargain and make deals so that she can serve the best interests of her people, despite the trauma she undergoes on the way. Zech overcomes the prejudice she faces as an abandoned child and her skin to become a queen in her own right and a political mind capable of outmanoeuvring even Leoden and Yasha. And Saffron grows from an ordinary schoolgirl to a queen’s equal who has fought armies and dragons. Each of these arcs involves some truly unexpected twists and genuine emotional weight.
An Accident of Stars is a joy to read, and manages to be exciting, thought provoking and intensely moving all at once.