ALL THE STARS AND TEETH by Adalyn Grace (BOOK REVIEW)
Content warnings: violence and death; mild body horror; blood magic; mention of abusive relationships.
Amora is the princess of the island kingdom Visidia, and in order to take her throne, she must demonstrate full control of her family’s brutal magic in a huge performance of skill. When things don’t go quite as planned, it could mean death for Amora, unless she can escape – and willing to help her do just that is sarcastic pirate Bastian, who opens her eyes to just how rotten things are in Visidia. Amora finds herself learning more about her kingdom than she ever could as queen, and it might just come down to her to save it. This is great piratical fantasy, full of sarky mermaids, swashbuckling sailors, and magnificent sea monsters, but it’s also got some very smart things to say about monarchy and power.
The magic system as it’s presented to us at the start is very interesting, with the kingdom made up of separate islands, all of which have a single magical skill associated with them; if you want to do that magic, you have to live on that island. No one can learn more than one magic, as it is seen as dangerous and corrupting, and part of Amora’s future reign will be to enforce these rules, as the royal family’s skill is soul magic that gives them the power to kill from the inside out. I loved Amora’s magic and how dark it was – the narrative doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of her powers, and there’s even a tinge of horror to the description of the execution that kicks off the book. It’s really interesting to see a book that lets its main character do some downright despicable things to people – the morality is still pretty black and white, with Amora herself clearly aligned as good despite her dark magic, which undercuts the bite a little, but there are several strong moments where she has to decide between two evils for the greater good.
Obviously, as this is a YA fantasy, things are not going to be as they seem initially with regards to the magic or the politics, and though this is tropey, it’s a well done story of a princess discovering the state of her nation and her own complicity in the oppression of her people, then working to dismantle the system. I thought that this was one of the smartest variations on those classic YA bones that I’ve read – there’s a lot of great character work, and the worldbuilding is very interesting. Although it does get quite dark for YA, both in terms of gore and in terms of the human impact on the people of Visidia, I didn’t feel like it was overly grim – in fact, it’s a pretty rip-roaring adventure, and there’s plenty of humour and fun. There are a couple of big action set-pieces that had me flipping pages madly, too!
Amora herself is a good, but not great, protagonist; if you’ve read any YA fantasy before, you’ll have seen several variations of her. This doesn’t mean I didn’t like her – she’s a perfect audience insert and very easy to root for, especially because of her particular flaws around her magic. But the most fun character stuff happens when she interacts with the core secondary characters: her flirtations with Bastian, who is himself a fairly familiar archetype (the carefree boy hiding trauma with sarcasm) are great fun, while her tentative friendship with bitey mermaid Vataea made me smile a lot. My favourite character was a total surprise – Amora’s unwanted fiancé Ferrick was an unexpected addition to the cast, but I loved how his inclusion flipped that typical love triangle on its head. I thought he was going to be an annoying fop who would just get in the way of the actual romance for plot purposes, but he develops in a very different direction and I really enjoyed it. I have a feeling that the interactions between all four of them are going to lead to some brilliant development in book two.
I am so excited to finish up this duology in the spring when All the Tides of Fate releases – we’ve already done the whole traditional YA arc in this first book, so I can’t wait to see what happens next. I’m looking forward to more interactions between Amora and Bastian, more of the spiky Vataea, and more magic and intrigue as Amora tries to dismantle the flawed world her ancestors have built. Hardcore YA haters should maybe give this one a swerve, but if you’re up for a clever adventure, I definitely recommend it – I just had a brilliant time!
Four out of five cats.