Review: These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs


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OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Bethany Jacobs is a former college instructor of writing and science fiction, who made the leap to education technology. When she is not writing, she enjoys reading, trying out new recipes, and snuggling in bed with a TV show she’s already watched ten times. She lives in Buffalo, New York, with her wife and her dog and her books. These Burning Stars is her debut novel.

These Burning Stars was published on October 17th, 2023 by Orbit Books. It is 464 pages and told in third person from Esek, Jun, and Chono’s point of view. It is available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Ever since pirates raided the homes of the Nightfoot estate one year ago, Jun Ironway has been on the prowl for rumors of a memory coin said to have been stolen in the attack. But no sooner does she finally track down the item than she finds clerics Esek and Chono hot on her trail, determined that the data on that coin shall never see the light of day. But their chase is complicated by the fact that they themselves are being chased by a mysterious figure from their past, one whose history with Esek in particular causes complications no one saw coming.

These Burning Stars is a tense sci-fi thrill ride that had me hooked from beginning to end. From the jump, you are thrown into a world that will keep you guessing and wondering, without fully being overwhelmed. It’s a chase from start to finish, with Jun Ironway trying to stay one step ahead of the various factions closing in on her and the coin. And I truly did not see the ending coming, even though all the pieces were set before me.

The characters are the true star of this book, and they are absolutely magnetic to watch. That’s in part because of the web of connections between our leads that we slowly unearth through flashback chapters, teasing out bits of history that shed new light on interactions and dynamics. The true spotlight goes to Esek, a character as charismatic as she is toxic. She’s the kind of character that will stab you with a smile, while gently explaining that this is for your own good, even as she steps over your body for her own advancement. Her true goals are a driving enigma, as she decides whether or not to renounce her role in the Church to assume leadership of the Nightfoot family. When she acts, is she solidifying her future political position, or protecting the organization she currently serves?

Making this all the more tense is the setting itself, a galaxy of planets under the control of the Kindom, a theocratic form of government made of three branches: clerics, secretaries, and cloaks…also known as assassins. Just take a moment to absorb that the people under this rule just accept that there’s an official group of shadow warriors who remove any “enemies” of the state, and you’ll get a sense of the kind of rule that exists in the Kindom. Now take rising religious tensions, economic uncertainty, and a government that prizes stability above all else, and you’ll begin to understand the stakes surrounding the hunt for a coin that contains information that could upend everything.

(P.S. Now seems a good time to mention to check your trigger warnings on sensitive topics. Most things happen off page, but there is reference made to some dark happenings.)

(P.P.S. Despite all the bad things, it IS a queernorm setting!)

It does take a little bit of time to get situated in the world of These Burning Stars, as you have to pick up a fair bit of the terminology and power structures through context clues. It’s the kind of sci-fi/fantasy writing I love, riding the line of making me want to read more about the world without leaving me frustrated at being lost in words I don’t understand. The story does require you to buy into a premise of absolute obsession from one (or two) of the lead characters, but doing so leaves you to wonder just how far that person will go to achieve their objective.

CONCLUSION: These Burning Stars is a brutal story with a truly wild ending. I feel like I’ve failed to capture just how good it is in this review; the plotting is meticulous and intricate and yet its execution seems effortless. This has skyrocketed into my Top Five Reads of 2023, and it will take something truly spectacular to dislodge it.

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