Title: The Star-Touched Queen
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Length: 339 pages
My star rating: ★ ★
Princess Mayavati of Bharata is cursed, or so everyone thinks because of her unfavorable horoscope, and thus she is shunned and feared by the other women of her father’s harem. Now seventeen and lacking either a betrothal or prospects of one, Maya looks forward to a life of scholarly solitude–only to discover that her father has other plans for her. She finds herself used as bait to secure a “favorable” war for her kingdom, but at the last moment is rescued by a masked man called Amar, who offers her unimaginable power and influence in exchange for her hand in marriage. Now queen of a fantasy realm she’s only ever heard of in stories, Maya attempts to make sense of the sudden changes in her life, including whether she can trust her mysterious new husband.
The Star-Touched Queen is a beautifully-written hot mess. It is, in theory, a retelling–perhaps of Hades and Persephone, or maybe it’s Cupid and Psyche? No one seems able to put their finger on it–based on Indian mythology. But almost nothing about it works.
The characters are flat and unchanging. They are not compelling and only rarely sympathetic. At first, Maya is set up to be fierce and independent, but she soon reveals her true colors: despite being well-read and, supposedly, well-versed in court intrigue and politics, Maya is as gullible, naive, and blindly trusting* as a five-year-old being offered candy by a stranger. The author wants us to believe that she’s capable and worthy of wielding great power and responsibility, but she stumbled around blindly like a newborn foal for most of the book, so I didn’t buy it. She makes major decisions based on her
intuition feelings alone, takes advice from people who hate her, and ignores warnings from people who don’t hate her that are meant to keep her safe. She also panics when she “discovers” Amar’s “true” identity even though he has, until then, been shown as kind, thoughtful, and generous towards her. And then the second half of the book is quite literally about self-discovery, yet Maya undergoes not a single moment of true character development throughout.
*She actually doesn’t trust Amar, the one person she maybe should (considering the first thing he did when they met was save her life), but that’s a whole other issue.
Amar wavers between the dreamy, perfect, selfless Prince Charming-type and the type of slightly possessive and creepy “dangerous/bad boy” love interests so common in YA today. In both roles, he was forgettable, though at least when his eyes were flashing and his temper a bit high, he was somewhat interesting. And despite not trusting him, Maya falls in head-over-heels instalove with him. All the romantic scenes, bar none, left me unmoved and cold–never a good sign. Even their backstories, when they’re finally revealed in Part 2, failed to salvage the poorly-executed relationship. And when the entire romance of a YA fantasy romance fails…well…
The villain (I won’t name them, as it’s a–very confusing–twist) is dull, predictable, and over-the-top in the worst way. Oh, and there’s a talking horse that a lot of other people loved, but it took me almost a week to get through the last half of the book because I was bored and confused and just didn’t care, and the horse character came across as both random and a little desperate to me.
Maya’s little sister Gauri, the one person in the human world who doesn’t treat her like garbage, could have been a great character, especially in Part 2 when she’s all grown up. In fact, I found myself wondering why she wasn’t the heroine,** because I cared way more about her story during the ten or fifteen pages it’s discussed than I did about Maya’s. Maya also had a far more believable relationship with Gauri than with her “beloved” husband, so I found her choices and actions in Part 2 somewhat difficult to believe.
As for the plot…what plot? Most of it was inconstant when it wasn’t incoherent. First, Maya’s conflict centers on her upcoming arranged marriage, then on her shotgun marriage to Amar, who can’t reveal any specifics about himself or his kingdom to his new bride until the new moon, then on correcting the horrible mistake she makes halfway through the novel, then… (It goes on like that.) The actual villain of the story isn’t truly introduced until the very end of Part 1, and even then the author relies on a bait-and-switch twist, which failed to fool me properly even though I tend to be a very unaware reader susceptible to things that are obvious to others. (It does, of course, completely fool poor, stupid Maya–and worse, later she finds out that the same exact trick fooled her once before as well! Why do all these YA authors design their heroines to be this dense?!) And the ending spiraled into nonsense, as YA fantasy often does if the author isn’t careful. It left me with a ton of questions and zero answers.
And to make matters even worse, everything is rushed. TSTQ is just 300-some pages long. Important plot points therefore get skimmed over–not the exception but the norm–including the motives behind Maya’s disastrous choice in Part 1 and all of her backstory in Part 2. Scenes and memories that should be stretched out over many pages get mere paragraphs instead, which just left me scratching my head and playing catch-up the whole time. The whirlwind pace also contributed to my detached attitude towards the whole story. How can I be bothered to care if I can’t even catch my breath and figure out what’s happening?
The plot isn’t all that’s lacking, though. So is the world-building. It, too, suffers from the breakneck pace of the entire book, but it’s so bare-bones that that almost doesn’t matter. I was no great fan of Catherine Valente’s style of throwing everything and the kitchen sink at readers in Deathless, but it was preferable to the almost total lack of information presented here. Even when readers were exposed to some new fantasy creature or new element of the Otherworld, it lacked any context or explanation. The human world is much more straightforward, more fleshed-out, and was therefore more compelling to me despite this being a fantasy novel.
On top of all that, the book is written using such flowery language that, even had the plot gone at a reasonable pace and made more sense, I would’ve felt a little lost. Purple prose can be wonderful when used at the proper times and in the proper places. Had Chokshi been more selective, I would have appreciated her gift for language more. As it was, she just sprinkled nonsensical metaphors that sounded pretty but seem meaningless upon closer inspection everywhere. A lot of the space she devoted to describing Maya’s saris could’ve been put to better use fleshing out the actual story. The prose in TSTQ is basically like a lavish, artistic cake, only when you slice into it you discover that all the beautiful bits are fondant and that the cake beneath it all is dry and stale.
Going back to the confusion I mentioned earlier–whether this is a retelling of the Hades and Persephone story or of the Cupid and Psyche story, or maybe something else altogether–I’ll say that the storyline in Part 1 reminded me very strongly of Deathless, albeit without the weird child grooming/BDSM elements, which for me was not a good thing. I didn’t care for Deathless at all (Valente also uses pretentious-sounding purple prose far too often and left me feeling confused and lost at the end of the book), so I wasn’t pleased to find myself rereading a watered-down YA version of it.
Props to Ms. Chokshi for her lovely (if needlessly overwrought) prose and for attempting an Indian-based fantasy (albeit a half-baked one). I think she has great potential, but The Star-Touched Queen is not a very impressive debut.
** Apparently the second book, A Crown of Wishes, will be about Gauri. Well…it could hardly get worse than this.
Also: the original title of this book was apparently “The Bride of Dusk and Glass,” which I sort of like better than this one. Interesting.