Cannibal Nuns and the Problem of Blood: Review of Star Eater by Kerstin Hall
Star Eater. By Kerstin Hall. Tordotcom, June 22, 2021.
Fantasy has a blood problem. I don’t mean gore, although the genre’s relationship to violence also bears examining, but genealogy: a disturbingly common emphasis on lineages and bloodlines, hereditary magic and royal lines of succession. Think of all the secret heirs, sons of wizardry, and gods’ daughters who have populated the genre through the years, given powers and rights solely because of their biological parents. It often unthinkingly reinforces social hierarchy, an uneasy side effect of the genre’s fetishization of feudalism, and often undergirds the right of the good guys (with the right blood) to overthrow the bad guys (who either have the wrong bloodline or have perverted and misused their inherent nobility).
Kerstin Hall’s debut novel, Star Eater, billed by the publisher as a “phantasmagorical indictment of hereditary power”, is an explicit rejoinder to this tendency. It centers on an order of nuns who literally consume their comatose mothers to increase their stores of magic. A side effect of this magic is a sexually-transmitted infection that turns men into Haunts, antlered zombies both berserk and immortal. Consensual heterosexual relationships rendered impossible, the daughters necessary to continue the Sisterhood’s bloodline are conceived through coercive sexual encounters between duty-bound, traumatized Sisters and magically-compelled male convicts, who are then cast into the depths under the floating city of Aytrium as their transformation begins. Male children born to Sisters meet a fate so terrible it’s left undescribed.
The book is the first-person account of Elfreda Raughn, the youngest Acolyte in the Sisterhood. Grieving the recent death of her mother, wavering on the edge of heretical thoughts, in love with her male best friend, and prone to hallucinations, Elfreda is soon caught up in a whirlwind of conspiracies and murders. It’s a hell of a setup, but one that I think the novel doesn’t quite deliver on. Its focus on Elfreda is a strength, but the vagueness of the world around her and an oddly old-fashioned gender essentialism hold the book back from reaching its full potential. The weirder moments of the novel are its strongest, particularly one morbidly beautiful episode where Elfreda has to carry on a conversation with her supervisor while hallucinating a murmuration of starlings smashing themselves into a wall above her. Several of the encounters with the Haunts also stand out, and it’s a shame that Hall didn’t lean into this penchant for weirdness more often.
Star Eater is a grandchild of the early-2000s New Weird: a secondary-world fantasy in a modernizing city, suffused with horror—it’s about cannibal witches and STI-created zombies, after all. The Sisterhood runs both government and religion, administered by a series of departments (the most intriguing of which is the wonderfully-named Maternal Affairs, who oversee the comatose mothers entombed in the Martyrium). Facing a burgeoning drought and food crisis, a struggle over the politics of austerity overlays the conflict between progressives and traditionalists that drives the novel. The glimpses we get of this world are fascinating, and Hall’s emphasis on the costs of the power undergirding it is timely and well-founded.
Unfortunately glimpses are, for the most part, all we get. Unlike much of the New Weird, Star Eater emphatically does not eschew epic fantasy’s focus on a single hero. It paints a very clear picture of Elfreda’s despair, trauma, and loneliness, but the city and world around her never really come to life. Fantasy worldbuilding has to avoid what M. John Harrison dismissed as the “clomping foot of nerdism”, but the larger points Hall is aiming at here necessitate more context than the reader is given. Revelations that come near the end of the book lack the impact they should have had, because so little of the Order’s worldview or history had been set forth. There’s a clear conflict between the Sisterhood’s insistence that their power is necessary to fight off the Haunts and the fact that, without the Sisterhood and their insistence on maintaining their bloodline, there wouldn’t be any Haunts, but none of the characters ever make this explicit.
I also wish Hall had done more to challenge fantasy’s preoccupations with youth and individualism. Making Elfreda so young (22, but a very young-feeling 22) means that her realization of the toxic basis of her power has less impact than a more established woman’s would have. It seems easier to question the necessity of eating pieces of your martyred mother and submitting to horrific Renewal ceremonies when the power the Sisterhood grants you is still miniscule. This bleeds through in the dialogue, too, which tends toward youthful banter; and Elfreda’s relationships, including a love triangle with members of a resistance movement, often feel like they belong in a high-school drama. Given all these YA tropes, it’s not much of a surprise when Elfreda turns out to be something of a Chosen One who has to choose between renewing the Sisterhood’s traumatic hereditary power and ending it.
The truest failing of the book is in its presentation of gender. Elfreda is bisexual, sexuality is treated fluidly, and homosexual relationships are the norm among the sisters of the Order, but the novel’s admirable rejection of heteronormativity is weakened by its rigid approach to gender. There is no consideration given at all to trans, nonbinary, or intersex people. Men are men, and magic turns them into monsters, and women are women, able to wield magic and turn men into monsters. I’m fully onboard with Hall flipping the doctrine of original sin so that men pay the price of women’s embrace of power, but not with her failure to complicate or problematize the gender binary.
All in all, Star Eater has an incredibly impressive span of ideas for a debut novel, conveys its characters well, and displays a sure hand with lean prose. Hall is asking the right question of fantasy’s unfortunate reliance on hereditary power and rights, but I found her answers unsatisfying. It’s a book worth reading for fans of the genre interested in materialist worldbuilding’s effect on a single character, and for the weirder moments Hall conceives and writes so well. But it’s not the definitive statement it could have been, its disinterest in spinning those effects out to a larger socio-historical context leaving it instead with a narrative steeped in gender essentialism and bloody birthrights—even if the Chosen One chooses to turn her back on them.
Zachary Gillan is a critic residing in Durham, North Carolina. He blogs infrequently at https://doomsdayer.wordpress.com/ and tweets somewhat more frequently at @robop_style.
This review was commissioned by editor Jake Casella Brookins in March 2021 from a hard pitch; the author and editor had no prior relationship. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Tor Books.