bookish review

Review: A Dark and Hollow Star, Ashley Shuttleworth

A Dark and Hollow Star by Ashley Shuttleworth
eARC received from NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Canada for review
512 pages, YA Urban Fantasy

The Cruel Prince meets City of Bones in this thrilling urban fantasy set in the magical underworld of Toronto that follows a queer cast of characters racing to stop a serial killer whose crimes could expose the hidden world of faeries to humans.

Choose your player.

The “ironborn” half-fae outcast of her royal fae family.

A tempestuous Fury, exiled to earth from the Immortal Realm and hellbent on revenge.

A dutiful fae prince, determined to earn his place on the throne.

The prince’s brooding guardian, burdened with a terrible secret.

For centuries, the Eight Courts of Folk have lived among us, concealed by magic and bound by law to do no harm to humans. This arrangement has long kept peace in the Courts—until a series of gruesome and ritualistic murders rocks the city of Toronto and threatens to expose faeries to the human world.

Four queer teens, each who hold a key piece of the truth behind these murders, must form a tenuous alliance in their effort to track down the mysterious killer behind these crimes. If they fail, they risk the destruction of the faerie and human worlds alike. If that’s not bad enough, there’s a war brewing between the Mortal and Immortal Realms, and one of these teens is destined to tip the scales. The only question is: which way?

Wish them luck. They’re going to need it.

All specific details mentioned in this review are from the first few chapters or the summary.

A Dark and Hollow Star is, to describe it in one word, chaotic. There’s a lot going on with its worldbuilding: Fae courts, gods from various pantheons, figures from religious and cultural myth… Immortals, mortals, and everyone in between… Unseelie and seelie, lesidhe and sidhe… All of these elements lay the groundwork for an interesting premise that suffers from pacing issues.

Our narrators, in rotating third-person perspective, are:

Arlo Jarsdel – An Ironborn (half fae, half human) member of the Unseelie Spring Court whose story begins with a scene of life-altering decision: she can either give up her knowledge of the magical world and live as a human, or continue to live as a magical citizen with a reduced role in court politics. Arlo has a personal stake in the story’s murder mystery as both an Ironborn potential target and a member of Toronto’s ruling fae family.

Nausicaä Kraken – The “Dark Star” from the title and the Fury formerly known as Alecto. Nausicaä was exiled to the mortal world for an act of wrath, and her new life mission is to cause enough trouble to make the gods regret not stripping her of immortality when they had the chance. Under her flippant exterior is a deep well of grief and rage.

Vehan Lysterne – Son of Queen Riadne and Prince of the Seelie Summer Court. Vehan is surrounded on all sides by those who would use him or remove him from the line of succession – and on top of that his childhood best friend has abruptly become distant. Vehan struggles with feeling isolated and unhappy while trying to mitigate his mother’s temper and serve his court.

Aurelian Bessel – An expat of the Seelie Autumn Court whose family relocated from Germany to Nevada to serve as court patissiers – and for Aurelian to train as Vehan’s steward. Aurelian is intimately aware of the dark side of Queen Riadne’s rule and tries to shield Vehan from the full extent of the corruption, which drives a wedge into their once close relationship.

There are also short sections from the perspective of Hero, an Ironborn youth whose memory of the magical world is restored by a mysterious figure.

These characters are drawn together by a series of gruesome murders that should be a huge deal, especially as more details come to light, but the magical side of the Mortal world doesn’t seem to care, humans can’t make sense of the bodies left behind, and the Immortals are by and large unconcerned by Mortal problems. What these four teens uncover, however, will have major and far-reaching consequences for everyone.

On the whole the characters are interesting but easily recognizable as YA archetypes. Arlo is the most blatant example – the redhead reluctant Chosen One who insists she’s not special while the plot says otherwise – but the narrators are all sympathetic and complex enough to stand out.

It’s difficult to keep track of the sprawling supporting cast beyond the more memorable characters, like Queen Riadne and Prince Celadon. A smaller cast would have helped, or at least a glossary of terms and cast list, though this feels like a series that will draw in an active fandom and fanmade wiki at some point to fill the gap.

As advertised in the summary, there is queer rep throughout: this includes all four narrating characters (three who confirm themselves in text as lesbian, gay, and bisexual), plus various side characters. There are trans and nonbinary supporting characters referred to by a variety of pronouns – Nausicaä hints that the Immortals have little use for mortal concepts of gender – but the main cast and most of the major supporting cast read as cis.

There are two developing romances among the main cast and both are obvious from the start. Nausicaä and Arlo are strangers who grow closer as circumstances repeatedly bring them together. Vehan and Aurelian, on the other hand, are childhood friends who have abruptly grown apart for plot reasons, with off-the-charts mutual pining.

What initially drew me to this book was its setting. I grew up a couple hours outside of Toronto and it was genuinely fun to recognize the landmarks in A Dark and Hollow Star. I loved the little details – like the Tim Hortons in Reverdie, how Unseelie Spring is hidden in plain sight in the downtown core, and scenes featuring Ripley’s Aquarium, the C.N. Tower, and Casa Loma – that gave the story a solid sense of place in spite of the fantastical elements.

One caveat, however, is that this is a tourist’s view of Toronto, with many of the recognizable landmarks but little of the cultural diversity or the aspects that make the city truly come alive. This is partially because the Spring Court exists as a transplant to the GTA, adjacent but largely separate from the human world. It’s also a side effect of Arlo living a relatively privileged and isolated upper-class life. Still, it feels like a missed opportunity that the areas outside of the touristed spots feel like generic city streets.

The worldbuilding has a lot of potential. A Dark and Hollow Star lays the groundwork for a much larger conflict: war is imminent between the Immortal and Mortal realms, blurring the lines that divide the realms, the various fae courts, and everyone who lives on the fringes. There’s conflict and tension at every turn and antagonists who complicate the whole in pursuit of their own goals.

Shuttleworth’s world draws heavily from Western fantasy and mythology, including many concepts that would have been catnip to me at the age of the target audience: the seven deadly sins, alchemy, the four horsemen, gods of various pantheons, fate versus choice versus luck, and more. There are lots of fun pop culture references and snappy one-liners. To be fair, my reading notes are full of groaning comments like of course it’s a magical katana, but I can honestly say that teenage me would have been all over this book, the same way I was deeply into Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments.

The downside is that the pacing suffers for the amount of explanation required to pull off a world where all of these things coexist; a lot of scenes get sidetracked by exposition and lose their tension or emotional punch.

An excessive amount of physical description further bogs down the pace. Your mileage may vary, but I’m not a fan of overlong and repetitive physical character descriptions unless clothes and appearances are directly relevant to the action. While I expected to skim through at least a few “here’s what everyone wore to the club” scenes (because YA urban fantasy), this book takes it to a frustrating level for major and minor characters. It felt like the physical description could have been cut to a fraction of what made it into the final book, for the sake of narrative flow and overall length.

The end result is a weird combination that feels overlong in some ways but underdeveloped in others. Maybe everything would gel together better with a second read-through, but all of these elements combined – huge cast, worldbuilding that draws in many external influences, exhaustive descriptions of characters and places – makes for a confusing and stilted first read that might put some readers off.

Final thoughts: A Dark and Hollow Star is the first entry in a series that struggles with pacing but nonetheless sets up an interesting world and cast of characters. I’m excited to see where the next book takes the story and I’m invested in the characters and their individual struggles.

This was a three-star read for me but I could see it resonating more for readers in the target age group or fans who are more into urban fantasy and its tropes. Still, it was a fun read.

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