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Review: And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst

by ◊ 1 year ago 24 Comments Switch View

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.

And All the Stars is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.

About the Author

Sean http://www.seanwills.com

I came to science fiction relatively late, being a bigger fan of fantasy during my teenage years. Now I enjoy speculative fiction of all kinds, particularly anything with a literary bent. I studied English at NUI Maynooth in Ireland, and now write science fiction for teenagers. Follow my exploits at www.seanwills.com. View all posts by Sean »

Discussion - 24 Comments:

  1. Lamusiqe13

    You know what the problem is with self-published authors? I CAN’T FIND THEIR WORKS ANYWHERE! My library (my main source of books) doesn’t have a single book by the author. I’d have to order it from Amazon, and since I currently have no job and no money, that’s not really something I’m enthusiastic about doing.

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    • That’s an interesting point, and not one I’d thought of before. I wonder if your library could order in a copy of a self-published book if there was a paperback version? (Or see the author’s comment below this one, I guess!)

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      • Lamusiqe13

        I doubt it. Even if I knew how to make a request, there are about 12 other books that I’d request as well. Plus, they only take hardback, so they’re actually more likely the way it is now. For the same reason, I probably won’t make it my priority to get it off of Amazon – there are just too many other books that my library and bookstore don’t have, and I only order off of Amazon every few months.

        That is an interesting perspective on the publishing process and the advantages of self-publishing. I think this is a good example of the phrase “History is written by the winners” – you generally only hear about the publishing process from authors who were extremely successful, and therefore, their publishing companies treated them well after the first book. I never realized just how long it could take and just how frustrating it could be.

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  2. Andrea

    Very cool review Sean.

    I hate the “designated asshole” trope in disaster books. One of the few aims I had with AAtS was to try not to have redshirts or “reluctant loner leader-guy” and “guy who wants to be leader but is bad” and all the usual suspects.

    @Lamusique13 Sorry about that. Libraries usually don’t purchase self-published work – the only libraries I know that have my stuff are the ones I’m legally obliged to send it to. I’m happy to send you an e-copy if you read electronically.

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    • Andrea

      On, on the publisher deal issue, I no longer submit my books because of this: https://sites.google.com/a/andreakhost.com/the-glacier/

      I’m not entirely against the concept, but it’d have to be in rather favourable circumstances, because I just have such negative associations.

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      • I saw that just after I posted the review. I noticed you’ve queried agents as well. I’ve done that once, and the responses were mostly pretty fast. They were all rejections, admittedly, but they didn’t keep me waiting at least!

        Do you think you’ll keep self-publishing for the foreseeable future? I’m just curious because I’ve thought about it a few times myself, and am always interested in hearing from people who have been doing it for a little while.

        (Also glad you liked the review. I’ll be looking forward to your next book.)

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      • Andrea

        Agents tend to be between one and six months for queries. Except for the ones have a “no response means no” policy. [And then there's the agents who publicly mock submissions sent to them, and all sorts of issues - agents can be great, but rather a complicated proposition at the moment.]

        I like self-publishing a lot. It has its negatives – primarily complete lack of visibility, not being in bookstores and libraries, and the large chunk of people who won’t read you – but if you can swallow those, there’s no real downsides. Your books are out there, you get fanmail and money, and if you take off (as has been demonstrated a lot the last couple of years) you’re likely to get trade publishers lining up to have a chat to you, if that’s what you want.

        I’m what I guess would be a ‘mid list’ self-publisher (I have a small, slowly growing dedicated audience), but I really enjoy the control over my books and I’m not looking to give up that control at the moment.

        I recommend self-publishing to anyone (though I usually suggest trying submitting to the trade for a couple of years first because trade publishing will massively increase visibility and you’ll be acceptable to the “only read previously trade published self-publisher crowd” if/when you self-publish subsequent books).

        Self-publishing is (with the occasional exception) a very slow-build type of publishing, but if you take a 3-5 year approach, it tends to be a positive experience.

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    • Lamusiqe13

      That would be great, if I was more comfortable about releasing my e-mail address for the entire internet to see. Is there some way to give you my e-mail address so that only you would see it?

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      • Andrea

        Just email me at mail at andreakhost dot com – let me know what eformat you prefer.

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  3. 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.

    Oh dang, I do believe I have one of those in my current WIP. Harumph. Must complexify that up (didn’t even realize it was a Thing.)

    Regarding the missing X factor–I haven’t read Ms. Host’s books, but I’ve gotten that sense from a few other otherwise admirable self-pubbed books I’ve read (Sarah Diemer, whose work I like very much, comes to mind). Though they might be otherwise better written than some mainstream novels, I’ve come to see the One Missing Thing as “polish.” By that I don’t necessary mean polished prose, but more a feeling that the book is a tight, consistent, cohesive experience–that it immerses you like real life does. It’s one thing that I saw my own book gaining through the editorial process, where Tireless Ed pointed out every place she felt the characters or plot lapsed even in a minor way. I never would have seen these things on my own. There might be exceptions among self-pubbed work (I’m not as well read in it as you), and it might not be the Stuff that’s missing from And All the Stars, but I wonder if that comes close.

    Of course, might be confirmation bias, but I do think that sort of consistency in voice is something I’ve noticed in mainstream books even when I don’t particularly like the voice used–and I suspect it’s something that only comes out of rigorous developmental editing.

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    • I would have agreed with you before I seriously got into ebooks, but I’ve now read so many badly scanned older titles rereleased from big publishers and am just now reading a book picked by Berkley from former self-publishing where the publisher didn’t even have a copy-editor go over the grammar mistakes or clunky writing like “He sunk his head to her”…

      So I would agree with “If you can get a big publisher to spend money and time on rigorous developmental editing” – it will be better for the book. But I wonder if they will want to, considering the clunky repetition in Fifty Shades of Grey and the series selling like hot cakes. Hmm.

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      • Addendum: I’m not a Native English speaker, so for me to see grammar and word choice mistakes, they have to really stick out.

        Subtleties like dangling particles I just read over.

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      • I’d be wary of using something like Fifty Shades as any sort of standard by which to measure the rest of the publishing industry. Its path to publication was highly unusual, in that it already had a massive following before it was picked up for a book deal. All it shows is that publishers are willing to forgo serious editing or quality control if a book is a guaranteed bestseller, which the vast majority of books will not be.

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      • Phoebe

        I’m not talking at all about copyediting–developmental editing isn’t a matter of wordchoice, grammar, or spelling but a matter of larger issues like consistency in voice and characterization.

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    • Hmm, I have to say with the good self-published authors I’ve read so far – Moriah Jovan, Andrea Höst, Lindsey Buroker – I haven’t had a problem of voice or character consistency at all. I introduced Sherwood Smith to Andrea Höst and while she does see editorial issues, those particular issues aren’t what she found, either.
      http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2012/10/28/good-books-are-portals-wherever-we-find-them/
      Admittedly, I’m not unbiased about these authors, though ^^. And anyway *I* am a non-Native speaker of English, but Sherwood used to be an English teacher in the US and is a native speaker.

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      • Phoebe

        As I said, I haven’t read Andrea Host–but the issues pointed out by Sean in his “biggest complaint” paragraph are exactly the type of consistency issue I’m referring to. With all due respect to Sherwood (though her issues with the book–including “places where maybe the story falters”–don’t sound so far afield from that, either).

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      • Phoebe

        (I should note that I’m well acquainted with Sherwood; I’m a VP grad.)

        I noted to Sean that I see this difference as being akin to the difference between a really, really good, polished manuscript and a finished book. I’ve never yet read a self-pubbed novel that felt more like the latter than the former, but that doesn’t mean I’m not open to it! Just hazarding a guess for Sean himself as to what the missing piece here might be.

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      • ^^ Yes, I agree that this is your reading of the possible causes.

        Just as I wanted to point out that as a reader I don’t see it that way – not compared to some big publisher books I’ve also read.

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  4. A really well developed argument in this review. It always amazes me to see how people can write practically spoiler-free reviews and not become incoherent – which is what I do, if I have to try writing one. Heh.

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  5. Sean:
    All it shows is that publishers are willing to forgo serious editing or quality control if a book is a guaranteed bestseller, which the vast majority of books will not be.

    I hope you’re correct with that – in the sense that most of the other books WILL get a good edit.

    I would still like to have one of the effects of a big publisher picking up a guaranteed best-seller being a thorough copy edit ^^. The Berkley Trade book I’m reading right now surely is compelling, but the number of wrong word choices and grammar mistakes take me out of the story repeatedly.

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    • Oh, definitely. Without naming any names, there are some books we’ve reviewed here that definitely seemed to have undergone minimal editing. I guess it’s inevitable that it happens sometimes.

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  6. Lamusiqe13

    Andrea:
    Just email me at mail at andreakhost dot com – let me know what eformat you prefer.

    I’ll think about it. If I can’t find anything at some point, I’ll request it. Unless you want me to request sometime in the near future so you’ll remember who I am, which I completely understand.

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  7. Lamusiqe13

    Andrea:
    Just email me at mail at andreakhost dot com – let me know what eformat you prefer.

    Okay, I got Stray from Amazon a couple of days ago. (It’s really great. My review will be up on GoodReads in a couple days under the name ‘Mike’.) I’d like to just say thank you for the offer, but no thanks. I seem to have misread your first comment – I don’t e-read, so there would be nothing I could do with the copy of your book. I’ll probably end up getting most of your books from Amazon, and my parents will completely understand. So, thanks, but no thanks. :)

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    • Lamusiqe13

      This situation actually had a rather ironic outcome – I just got a Kindle, and this is the first book that I bought for it, completely forgetting about your offer. :) And it’s even better than Stray. Anyone who read this review and is still wondering, I can confirm for you – READ IT.

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