I’ve been thinking about The Girl and the Stars for weeks now.This, the first book in a new series from Mark Lawrence, is a story which asks difficult questions, and encourages the reader in their journey to find the answers. It’s also a story with excellent characterisation, with a world that is both imaginative and vividly realised, and a story whose pacing will keep you turning pages well into the night.
As I suspect everyone knows by now, I’m a big fan of Mark Lawrence’s work, and went into this one with high hopes; those hopes were fully justified. If you’re already someone enjoying Mark’s work, this is another top-tier start to a series. If you’re coming to this series not having read anything else Mark’s written, don’t worry. This is a bloody great story, and one which will reward the time you invest in it.
Partly, that’s because of the world. Abeth is a world covered almost entirely in ice. A thin band of land around the equator is still free of the cold, though it gets closer every year. This isn’t s story in that habitable band. This is a story on the ice. Here are tribes for whom everything but snow and wind and ice and rock are but a memory. Whose have adapted to the horrendous environment in which they live to such an extent that the idea of not being cold is laughable. Where most of the mistakes you can make on the ice will kill you, and where making hard, often fatal decisions is a fact of life on the individual and social level. The ice is not your friend. The ice is relentless, and it will kill you eventually. The howling wilderness that is the surface of the world is wonderfully captured, the wind searing our faces as individuals march forward endlessly with furs and spears and precious shards of wood from older, warmer times. The cycle, the slow, seemingly eternal, unchanging nature of the ice and the people upon it, is impressive and terrifying at once. The system is in the appearance stasis, those in it having no way to exist beyond the way they always have; and yet, the ice changes, here and there, each year getting a little colder.
And if the ice is pitiless, so are those that walk upon it. The priesthood, from a mysterious hidden enclave, judges each individual at adolescence. Those deemed safe, those whose metabolism, whose very nature, will not change, are left alone. Those who are different, however, are also treated differently, The injured, the different, those with something they won’t call magic coursing through their veins, tearing apart the adaptations to the ice - they’re a danger. They slow the others on the ice. They can not be allowed to live in their tribes, in their families. Or at all. And so they are taken from their families, and cast into a pit, a pit which seemingly has no bottom. Certainly, no-one thrown into the pit is ever seen again.
The tribes on the ice of Abeth are wonderful and awful in equal measure. We can see the constraints placed on them by their environment, the way it shapes their thoughts into those sharply honed for survival, the way it tries to cast aside empathy and love and compassion in the name of pragmatism. Because this is a question that I saw at the heart of the story: what price are we willing to pay to simply survive. What decisions will we make under the guise of pragmatism which also serve to discard our humanity. How will we treat the vulnerable when the chips are, absolutely, down? In shaping these questions in the background, in building a society which approaches these questions with the unknowing brutality of tradition within the freezing framework of subsistence survival, the story asks us who we are, what we value, where we stand. It made me think, and I hope it does the same for you.
The ice isn’t all there is to Abeth, of course. Because there are cracks, cracks in the ice, and things which live beneath it; not all of those things are people, or even shaped like people. Because Abeth has its own history. There are ruins here, crushed beneath the weight of the ice. Ruins of cities with tall spires and mysterious technologies. There is a history from the past of Abeth that shapes where things are today; and that history is rich, complex, and bathed in blood. Hidden from sight under the ice, some of the history of the world is revealed as the story moves forward, and each revelation is a lantern in the darkness, as well as a question in itself. I’ve been wanting to know more about the history of Abeth ever since Mark’s other series set in that world came out, and it’s wonderful to get more context, understanding, more tantalising secret histories. Beneath the ice lurk treasures and devils innumerable, and dealing with either will have its price.
The contrast between the harsh realities of life on the surface of the ice and the broken opulence beneath is stark and forceful; it snatches at the breath like winter wind. It’s a contrast that reveals much about both environments, and also gives them a genuine texture, a sense of place and weight, of reality. This is a world you could get lost in - though you might want to be careful what found you.
And into this world steps Yaz. Yaz is a young woman from the depths of the ice, someone whose family and friends are strong, gentle, loving people. Those same people are, of course, prepared to hurl children into a pit, to do monstrous things under the guise of necessity. And Yaz, Yaz worries that she might be a burden. That as she comes closer to the time when she will be judged, as she comes closer to the pit, so too her chances of escape from it get smaller and smaller. Yaz is bright and fierce and strong herself, a young woman with a sharp mind and the ability to weather great hardship. And she may be something else entirely, something which would let her rewrite the rules of a society which might cast her out for her abilities, or perhaps break strands of that society apart.
And Yaz is human, too. She has a compassion and internal fortitude that let us sympathise with her readily, even as we see her react to crises and opportunities - not always to her betterment. She wants to do the right thing, not to see people hurt, and to save lives. Yaz grows into this as the story continues, slowly filling in an idea of who she is which doesn’t entirely match the social expectations of the world which raised her. But she’s smart, and loyal, competent and perceptive and isn’t going to take any crap. As a protagonist, Yaz is stellar; she’ll seize your heart; I, for one, spent her journey through the ice rooting for her, gasping at her tragedies and failures, celebrating her triumphs, and delighting in her humanity - from jealousy to rage to forgiveness, compassion, even love; all of these things we find in Yaz, and each of them etches a sharp path through our hearts, even as they do through hers. If Yaz is to be judged wanting by her society, perhaps we should look to judge that society instead.
Anyway. I have a lot of time for Yaz, a fantastic protagonist, whose journey it was a pleasure to share.
And what a journey it is. As usual, I don’t want to give spoilers, especially this early. But this is a cracking tale. There’s parts that made me laugh out loud, and parts that don’t so much pluck at the heartstrings as wrench at them with both hands. There’s betrayal, and chaos, and wonderful, terrible magics that got me to gasp more than once. There’s friendship and murder, there’s grand revelations and small, initmate choices which will shake the foundations of the world. And through it all, you’ll be turning pages ravenously, wanting to see what happens next.
This may be the finest work Mark Lawrence has ever done. It’s thoughtful work, passionate work, truthful work. It’s a story which you will, as I said, be thinking about weeks later. Give it a try. I absolutely loved it, and I think you will as well.