The human city of Minalav is renowned for its lavish balls, where nobles bring wealth from distant lands to the Starlight Palace, to be romanced—and robbed—by the half-human hybrids who live below the city. The wealthy guests leave without their treasure, and with no memory of their evening—except the unforgettable feelings that bring them back, season after season. But the magic of Minalav is built on dark secrets and lies.
Axly, a hybrid assassin and seductress-thief, will do anything to protect her human half-brother. The path of blood and chaos she carves will tip the precious balance of Minalav, and the world around it.
I first came across Starlight Jewel during the halcyon days of early SPFBO9, when community hype was off the charts and the writing community came together on Twitter (it was still Twitter at that point) to celebrate the start of Mark Lawrence's yearly competition. One of the trends that began was authors reading the first chapters of all the contestants and giving either anonymous critique or public praise. That must have been a Herculean task, as some of those threads are still ongoing.
One of the authors doing this was E.L. Lyons, author of a dark fantasy novel featuring spryggans – a fantasy race I was only familiar with because of how many I killed in Skyrim via stealth archery or fireballs.
E.L.'s spryggans are of course a different beast, with far more thought put into them than the Skyrim variety (sorry, Todd Howard, but it's true). They have their own politics, treaties, and culture that's slowly exposited as the story of Starlight Jewel unfolds. More on the masterful worldbuilding going on in this book later.
For now, let's introduce our main character, Axly, the Starlight Jewel herself. She's a spryggan hybrid, most of whom are born from spryggan mothers mating with human fathers. Axly, however, is the daughter of a spryggan father and a human mother. The process of a human birthing a hybrid takes a toll, to say the least. The mother is scoured of all her memories and personality, made effectively braindead but still alive, there for Axly to remember but never form a relationship with.
If that sounds like a horrible process, one that most women would steer far clear of, you're right. But Starlight Jewel doesn't shy away from the darkness of its world. That isn't to say this book is super grimdark – it isn't – but this is a world where hybrids can snap human bones with ease, assassination is routine, and memories are stolen from men so they don't remember they've been robbed by hybrid courtesans.
That's what the Starlight Company specializes in. They host balls in the hybrid-controlled city of Minalav, drawing in wealthy nobles for a night of carousing and dancing with seductive Starlings of the Company. Only, it's all a front for the Company's Hawks to rob them blind and efface them of their memories so they return year after year.
The ballroom setting (one of many places visited in the book) reminds me a bit of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, as do the powers Axly possesses. Hybrids inherit a range of abilities from their spryggan parents – night vision, superhuman speed, uncanny silence, keen hearing, and more. Axly has all of them (except one), similar to Vin, the protagonist of Mistborn. The plot is nothing like Mistborn, but readers who enjoy that Sanderson-style magic system will find a lot to like in these pages.
The story begins with Axly, trained as a Starling and selected as the most elite – the Starlight Jewel – on the run from the Starlight Company after having committed a few murders to escape with her brother. From there, the plot is rather loosey-goosey with Axly returning to Minalav, traveling to distant countries, pulling off a daring rescue, and so forth.
A lot happens in this book, but the focus is less on having a tightly paced plot and more on character relationships and themes. Normally, this wouldn't work that well for me – I typically need a strong plotline to pull me through the book. E.L.'s writing, however, compelled me to keep turning the page because I wanted to spend more time with these characters.
There are a ton of side characters, and all of them have their own relationship with Axly. We learn about their conflict and feelings mostly via dialogue – this book is a dialogue-heavy book, more than most books I read. I typically prefer quick back and forth dialogue, with no characters speaking at length unless there's a good reason. This book takes a different tack – characters often speak in paragraphs to one another, explaining their reasoning in great detail. It's a different stylistic choice, and one that I didn't mind given how compelling the character relationships were.
"I'm not sure I can change. I think I've gotten to a point where I've committed to being who I am. Changing would require making everything else I've done, everything I've sacrificed... meaningless."
"If all you've done hasn't left you feeling like you've done the right thing, then it's already meaningless. Learning from your mistakes is the only thing that can give meaning to them."
What I most appreciated about this book was how deeply it tied the plot to its core themes. That fact really made up for the lack of traditional structure I gravitate toward, giving the plot a different sort of structure that kept it from feeling meandering.
This is a book about figuring out what kind of person you are and how the choices you make shape that discovery. There's a lot of emphasis placed on maintaining the balance between spryggans and humans governed by their tenuous peace treaty. Axly herself is tasked with fulfilling that maintenance, but she's not sure she can or even wants to keep the balance. The external plight is mirrored in Axly the hybrid, part spryggan and part human, and the choices she must make about who to ally herself with.
It's all very enjoyable to read, especially since more and more intrigue is drip-fed slowly over the course of the story. The only instances that really pulled me out of the story were a bit of difficult-to-follow plot points near the middle of the book that left me confused. Plus there are a few instances of abrupt POV shifts that could have been clarified by adding a dinkus.
Those are the only very minor issues I had on what was otherwise a stellar read. The book's conclusion and all the intrigue that's revealed in the latter half of the book left me very excited to read book two, Austringer's Wrath, once it's published. For anyone looking for a fresh take on spryggans, or just a story with strong themes and compelling characters, Starlight Jewel deserves your interest.