Shea Ernshaw is an author I’ve followed since debut with The Wicked Deep. I’ve come to associate Ernshaw with atmospheric worlds and fantasy vibes. But I think A Wilderness of Stars is the farther departure from what I’ve expected. And while this is categorized as fantasy, because of the setting, it feels a bit like mismanaged expectations. Keep reading this book review for my full thoughts.
If magic lives anywhere, it’s in the stars…
Vega has lived in the valley her whole life—forbidden by her mother to leave the safety of its borders because of the unknown threats waiting for her in the wilds beyond. But after her mother dies, and Vega sees the fabled twin stars in the sky, it’s an omen she can no longer ignore, forcing her to leave the protective boundaries of the valley. But the outside world turns out to be much more terrifying than Vega could have imagined. People are gravely sick—they lose their eyesight and their hearing, just before they lose their lives.
What Vega keeps to herself is that she is the Last Astronomer—a title carried from generation to generation—and she is the only one who carries the knowledge of the stars. Knowledge that could hold the key to the cure. And so when locals spot the tattoo on Vega’s neck in the shape of a constellation—the mark of an astronomer—chaos erupts as the threats her mother warned her about become all too real.
Fearing for her life, Vega is rescued by a girl named Cricket who leads her to Noah, a boy marked by his own mysterious tattoos. On the run from the men who are hunting her, Vega, Cricket, and Noah set out across the plains in search of the cure the stars speak of. But as the lines between friend and protector begin to blur, Vega must decide whether to safeguard the sacred knowledge of the astronomer. Or if she will risk everything to try to save them all.
(Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
This is going to be a difficult review to write because my experience with A Wilderness of Stars was a roller coaster. I think it boils down to 1) fantasy expectations 2) secrets from the reader 3) the last 20%. Let me begin with the second – since number 1 & 3 are so interconnected. You know those narrators who are keeping secrets even from themselves? The ones who we know are keeping secrets from others, but so close to their chest that we never find out what they even are – even in their own narration. That’s what it was like in A Wilderness of Stars.
But because not even we get a peek at the secrets, there was some suspense that I felt like it was a bit hollow, I mean until it wasn’t but by then it was so late in the book. For most of the book, I was wondering where the story was going, what the big secrets would be, and because of that, it felt a bit slow. However, the slowness felt related to a lack of knowledge, a lack of knowing the true stakes or the depths of the mystery. And while this made us more like a character in the story, as a reader, it became frustrating.
The Atmosphere & Ending?
Furthermore, what was paired with this was that I was expecting a similar vibe to the fantasy books Ernshaw has graced us with before. Yet A Wilderness of Stars is more of a Western apocalyptic setting. There’s a closeness to our world which, at first, made me wonder if this was more like a contemporary fantasy. Except there are all these illusions to something big that happened in the past which contributed to the post-apocalyptic vibe. All of this meant that I had a very different set of expectations going into A Wilderness of Stars because of the genre – mainly.
Talking about the last 20% is going to be very difficult, but the last 20% totally saved this book for me. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it, but I kept thinking, “what is this leading up to??” and when I got there everything clicked. But I made it there as a reviewer not necessarily as a reader. Sometimes I wonder how long I’d stick it out if I was just a reader, and I’m not sure if I would have – unless someone told me that A Wilderness of Stars is less fantasy and more speculative fiction. And that’s all I can say without spoiling…
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So what does it all boil down to? If you are prepared for a story which will leave you breadcrumbs, which has enough action but keeps you wondering what events and secrets lay between the lines, then I think you’ll enjoy A Wilderness of Stars. Or if you’ve been searching for more of a speculative fiction with a Western post-apocalyptic vibe, then I think give this a go. It’s subtle, until the ending just feels like an explosion of color. I am glad I stuck it out to the ending – because I appreciate the twists even if it felt very sudden – but it was just a leap of blind faith until then. Find A Wilderness of Stars on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop.org & The Book Depository.