Madeleine Cost is working to become the youngest person ever to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Her elusive cousin Tyler is the perfect subject: androgynous, beautiful, and famous. All she needs to do is pin him down for the sittings.
None of her plans factored in the Spires: featureless, impossible, spearing into the hearts of cities across the world – and spraying clouds of sparkling dust into the wind.
Is it an alien invasion? Germ warfare? They are questions everyone on Earth would like answered, but Madeleine has a more immediate problem. At Ground Zero of the Sydney Spire, beneath the collapsed ruin of St James Station, she must make it to the surface before she can hope to find out if the world is ending.
-Cover art and description courtesy of Goodreads.
Atmospheric Analysis: Something that sounds fine in print can look really goofy in a picture, as evidenced by any of the Animorphs covers that prominently feature an Andalite. In And All The Stars, most of the main characters undergo a strange transformation that leaves them streaks of blue, ‘star-studded’ skin all over their body – just like in the cover. Alas, the photoshopping isn’t quite up to the task of translating that idea into cover art, which is a particular shame given the number of other striking images the book offers.
Having said that, it also could have looked a hell of a lot worse. So that’s something.
Planetary Class: Between this and Midnight City, I’m tempted to declare a resurgence in YA alien invasion fiction.
Mohs Rating: The aliens in And All The Stars are of the ‘beings of pure energy’ variety, making the book an easy 2. However…
Viability Rating: …their properties and abilities are handled consistently enough that the eventual full reveal feels more like a natural extension of what the book has already revealed than a convenient excuse for some last-minute plot twists.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: Have I mentioned that I love third person? I feel like it might have come up a few times already.
And All The Stars actually would have been a good candidate for first person, seeing as how the perspective is focused squarely on one character for the entire book, but I get the impression that Höst might just be more comfortable with third. I’m certainly not going to argue with her; the writing here is self-assured and of a consistently high quality, barring one or two oddly-described moments in the first three chapters.
Expanded Report: I reviewed Stray, one of Höst’s earlier books, about nine months ago. I remember wondering at the time whether Höst would pursue a book deal with a publisher, since she clearly had the skill to do so if she felt like it. Now, having read And All The Stars, I suspect she has a loftier goal in mind: to become one of the first self-published YA authors who can justify self-publishing not by the number of books she’s sold, but by the quality of her writing. Or maybe she just doesn’t feel like being bound to the terms of a contract. In the end, who cares? And All The Stars is one of the most unusual YA books I’ve read all year – and one of the best.
The book opens with the main character, Madeleine Cost, trapped under the rubble of a collapsed train station in Sydney. She escapes into a world utterly transformed: massive ‘Spires’ have appeared in major urban areas across the world, transforming those around them into either Blue or Green-skinned creatures with strange abilities. Madeleine is among those who survive the change. She befriends a group of similarly-transformed Blues, as they begin to call themselves, and sets out to understand why Earth has been invaded and whether any of the survivors can do anything to reclaim it.
I’d really like to say more about the alien invaders at the heart of And All The Stars, but finding out what they are is half the fun. They reminded me most of a more serious version of the aliens in The Hitchhiker’s Guie to the Galaxy – not evil, exactly, just profoundly indifferent to how their actions affect humanity.
Luckily, there’s plenty more to talk about. The cast of characters that makes an appearance in And All The Stars is huge – too huge, maybe, given that some of them appear once or twice and then are never heard from again. But the core group, consisting of Madeleine, Noi, and a group of boys from a private secondary school, are all fleshed out brilliantly over the course of the book. Their relationships are also incredibly diverse, as much as I hate using that word sometimes. Is Madeleine physically attracted to Noi, her closest friend among the group of survivors? She might be, or she may just see the other girl as an ideal subject for her paintings. Are Nash and Pan a couple? Not really, but also kind of, even though only one of them is gay. Whether intentionally or not, Höst depicts a group of young people who were almost entirely unconcerned with classifying themselves according to the usual rules even before an alien invasion turned society on its head.
Whether because of that or because they’re so well-written, I found myself genuinely worrying about what might happen to certain characters as the story progressed and the stakes grew ever higher. The invaders eventually put their ultimate plan into motion, and it doesn’t end well for any transformed humans caught in the middle. There’s a long (probably too long) section in the middle of the book where the characters are holed up in an apartment while they make plans to eventually leave the city. Inevitably, some of them aren’t going to make it out unscathed. But unlike in any number of zombie or disaster stories I could name, nobody has a target painted on their back; there’s no designated asshole who is destined from their first appearance to be thrown to the aliens when it’s time for someone to die.
Now for the inevitable criticism. (What, you thought it wasn’t coming?) My biggest complaint is that the book’s tone can be fluctuate pretty severely even in the middle of a scene. There were one or two moments when everyone seemed just a bit too jovial given the grimness of their situation and the amount of dead bodies they’ve all had to deal with since the initial appearance of the Spires. There are also one or two emotional moments that don’t entirely work, like the scene where a character reacts to the death of a friend by angrily quoting from a Shakespeare play. At some length. It’s a little bit difficult to take seriously.
I also can’t help but feel that the book is missing something, although I couldn’t tell you what that might be. (This is some grade-A reviewing, I know.) A slightly stronger emotional punch, maybe? Just a bit more direction in the plot? The fact that I can’t put my finger on what it is means that the book must not suffer too much for its absence, but the absence is definitely there.
These are fairly minor complaints, though. Any reader is, I think, justified in being slightly fed up with a lot of what comes out of the major publishers these days. I know I am, and not just because I review a fairly decent percentage of it for this site. And All The Stars is genuinely unlike anything I’ve review here on the Academy, ever, and for that alone I’d be willing to recommend it without reservation. The fact that it tells a good story, is great science fiction and has some of the best characters I’ve seen for a while means that it isn’t just a curio for adventurous readers. If you like YA science fiction, you should read this. It’s that simple.