YA Review: Starswept by Mary Fan

Mary Fan’s latest sci-fi novel, Starswept, follows the journey of a young violinist as she navigates cut-throat professional competition, inter-planetary scandals and – of course – a breath-taking first love. Split into two distinctive parts (and planets), the novel explores Iris’ internal journey to self-acceptance as she pursues a career as a violinist and learns a disturbing truth about her university and career path. Riddled with questions of identity and thoughtful critiques of both capitalism and America’s broken educational system, Starswept will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

At its heart, Starswept is an exploration of identity, primarily interested with how introspection aligns with or contracts the labels and perceptions created by others. At Iris’ school, students receive live rankings based on their performance and the number of accolades left on their profile. Iris feels inferior to her classmates, frequently citing her low ranking as evidence. Her confidence grows as her rating rises even though her level of skill doesn’t change. How listeners perceive her music shapes her identity as a musician, although readers are aware of her talent even when her score is at its lowest. In this way, Fan reflects on how talent and reception may not be codependent, but can still shape the artist’s perception of their identity.

Similarly, the thought-control used by the Adryil blurs the lines of self. Iris is frequently unsure how to differentiate between her own thoughts and those implanted in her mind, most prominently after her first encounter with Dámiul. It’s unclear whether Dámiul’s instinct that Iris was trustworthy, or his thoughts urging her not to betray him, caused her to protect his identity and mission. Iris’ “faces grows cold” when she realizes her thoughts belonged to Dámiul, despite being “sure they came from [her] own mind.” Iris identifies herself as someone worth trusting once Dámiul identifies her as so, and there is no way to know for sure whether this is true because it is inherent to her character or because he perceived her as such and, therefore, made it true. Fan delivers these broad questions with subtle expertise, never stepping out of scene to explore the greater themes. However, they exist throughout the novel like a soft heartbeat beneath the skin, drawing readers to reflect on perceived identity and how it relates to the vulnerable and exposed life of being an artist.

Perhaps one of the novel’s most elegant and complex features is the parallel love stories between Iris and  the handsome Dámiul and Iris and her viola. The “endless reaching” she feels working in the Arts mirrors her yearning for Dámiul; she feels the music “possessing everything” she is, just as her growing love for him does as the novel progresses. When Iris gains a sponsor, she sacrifices it all for Dámiul, all the while wondering “what kind of person rejects a safe, worry-free life” doing the thing they love. She risks her career and passion for Dámiul, but “doesn’t regret trading the world [she] knew for someone” she loves. This decision could easily have come across as a woman choosing a man over her career, but is written with such grace and sincerity and Iris’ choice seems like the only possible one.

Beyond its timeless explorations of identity and love, Starswept is also a very current novel in its analysis of higher education and the job market. Despite taking place in a fictional universe, Fan’s novel is a timely and scathing critique of America’s student debt crisis. Readers are sure to identify with Iris’ looming student debt, and her apprehension given her close-to-none career aspects. Whether you’ve come for the sci-fi, the romance, or something else entirely, each reader is sure to find some part of Mary Fan’s latest YA novel that resonates with them and challenging choices they face today.

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