Ignite the Stars, by Maura Milan


I struggled my way into this book. Not because the characters or setting didn’t compel me, but because the writing clashed with my expectations. The language of the text did not reliably flow for me, and several early conversations felt stilted or unnatural. It was jarring and distracting where I wanted it to submerge me completely.

But I persevered, and I’m glad that I did. It was the characters, the setting, and their underlying tensions that kept me going. Though it’s clear from my early jarring experience that Maura Milan and I don’t communicate on the same wavelength, her story is marvelous. I happily finished Ignite The Stars, and by the end I felt none of the disjointed language I’d experienced earlier.

Now, I haven’t re-read the start. I don’t know whether there’s simply one piece of the text that is written differently, or whether I became used to Milan’s writing and stopped noticing what had been difficult for me earlier. Other books I’ve read (like Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal series) are certainly an acquired taste that take a great deal of work to access and appreciate—and while I know that about them, I’ve lost track of how hard I worked to access them the first time. It’s not clear to me whether I’ve lost track of my difficulty accessing this book as well.

Regardless, I admire what Milan has made here. Few YA sci fi books I’ve read recently do as good a job of incorporating stories of oppression, hate, and exclusion, let alone deal with the consequences of hegemonic expansion or intolerance against refugees and ethnic groups. When they do incorporate these elements, they rarely feel as honest as this—like they’ve been tacked on to add some socially conscious edge to a story, instead of existing as part and parcel of this story’s world. Milan has done the second.

Moreover, she’s done the second while making a good story. Yes, there are some very specific genre story beats that you’ll see coming. If you’re already familiar with the particular tropes, you won’t be surprised (no I won’t spoil them). But Milan has made something that feeds all my genre expectations while still incorporating everything I mentioned above, and I admire it a great deal.

Honestly, I hope that I could do half as good a job as she does.

So yes, I recommend this book. That goes double if you want YA sci fi with a school plot and light romance elements. If you have language trouble early on, stick with it—there’s good story worth reading on the far side.

Lion’s Blood, by Steven Barnes

I wish I’d heard of this book years ago. I think it’s incredibly important, and I wish that it weren’t.  Why?

It is so easy, as a white man, to think that you understand troubles that others face, to think that you have read and spoken enough about a given issue to feel like you know more or less what’s going on, and why people feel and think the ways that they do.  In many cases, you have to actively search out conflicting points of view and other narratives in order to prove otherwise, and why would you bother doing that when you don’t know about them in the first place?  Why bother when you think that you’ve already got a good grasp on things?

In Lion’s Blood, Steven Barnes takes a fundamentally simple concept and uses it to explore a number of things… it’s quite simply a good and fun (if painful at times) book.  But the reason that I think it’s important and wish that it weren’t is that it confronts head on that feeling of complacent surety, the comfort of thinking that you know enough about historical (and modern) problems and don’t have to look deeper to examine your own place, your own implicit beliefs.

Lion’s Blood posits a world in which Africa rose to prominence, rather than Europe.  A world in which the slaves working the fields of the New World are white, taken from their tribal villages to work the fields of rich Muslim landowners.  Steven Barnes tells a familiar tale here, with a narrative that feels comfortably close to our expectations, but it’s one in which all the cultural and ethnic trappings have been inverted from our standard expectations.  And somehow that inversion was enough to shake me out of my “ah yes, this story again” complacency.  Better yet, it drove home yet again the violence done to people through the institution of slavery, and (I think) might help to wake some up to the systematic oppression which slavery engenders in a society.  And, of course, it tells an excellent story, one well worth reading.

Look.  I don’t want to ruin this book for you, so I’ll put it like this: this book is sad, tragic, and uplifting; this book is a marvelous adventure story; this book reminds you of why our current society is so screwed up in so many ways, as we deal with the toxic legacies and variably covert attempts to continue the oppressive power struggle at the heart of slavery. I’m deeply impressed.  I want my own alternate history to be as good as this book is.

P.s. I found Lion’s Blood on this recommended list of books by writers of color.  I intend to go back and find more to read, and would suggest that you do the same.