Coven Chat: Starbound Trilogy

 These Broken StarsAs you know from reading Nicola’s post, we are thrilled to share our discussion of The Starbound Trilogy, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. Please keep in mind our discussion posts often reveal spoilers, so if you haven’t read the books you should do so before reading this post. If you’ve read this series, let us know your thoughts in the comments. And be sure to come back next week for our recommendation and discussion of A Gathering of Shadows, by V.E. Schwab.

Allison: I’m a big fan of the collaborative model in this instance.  This worked really well through all three books: These Broken Stars (TBS), This Shattered World (TSW), and Their Fractured Light (TFL). I felt like this was an incredibly well planned series, which is probably a result of the fact that the collaborative process probably takes abit more forethought than a single-author process, even if you’re a plotter, you’d still have to be more up on your planning to write in a partnership.

Maria: I agree that collaboration seemed to work really well for this series. I have no experience writing fiction collaboratively, but I was really impressed with the fact that the writing style and tone was consistent throughout all three books- there weren’t any spots where I could tell that there were two authors.

Alyssa: Yes. I think collaboration helps keep the story moving and the characters dynamic and distinct. And it’s a great way to alternate perspectives and write an ensemble cast. I like how this series first focuses on the villain’s daughter, Lilac LaRoux, and then moves away from that central conflict–and romance with Tarver–to focus on what I believe are more interesting characters and relationships (Lee and Flynn, Sofia and Gideon), as well as subplots, and then relates back to the central narrative really well. I think the series would have fallen a bit flat if it had just been told through the perspectives of Lilac and Tarver and didn’t incorporate those other characters. Kaufman and Spooner concluded the series well by focusing solely on Sofia and Gideon for the first part of TFL, then reintroducing the other main characters.

Allison: I was really impressed with how the ensemble cast, in the first-person POV worked out for all three books. I love how in TFL it’s apparent that stuff has been going on with the other three couples, but you don’t necessarily feel like you’ve completely missed out. I love that Sofia and Gideon got their own narrative and it wasn’t diluted by the series concluding. I see that there’s no short that connects the second two books — would love it if there were! Wouldn’t it be fun to know what Tarver, Lilac, Jubilee and Flynn got up to while Sofia and Gideon were doing their thing?

Nicola: Agreed! I think the decision to write each book entirely from the main characters’ POVs worked really well here, especially in TFL. We see plenty of the other MCs through their interactions with Sofia and Gideon, but because they’re the POV characters they essentially carry the story. I also think it helped that the first half of the novel was just the two of them, before the others appear, so there was an actual storyline for them. But, yes, I completely agree that there was a good balance between a discrete narrative for Sofia and Gideon and a series ender.

Allison: I have a hard time deciding which book I like best. The second half of These Broken Stars was amazing, but I love the tone of TFL. I thought TSW was good, but it had the classic Book 2 issue where it needed to further the story. I also wasn’t as interested in Avon as the other worlds.

Maria: I don’t have a hard time deciding which book I like best: Their Fractured Light hands-down. I did really enjoy the second half of TBS, and I found TSW interesting, but I would agree that I wasn’t as interested in Avon as I was in the other worlds.

Alyssa: I’m not sure which is my favorite book, but I liked TBS slightly less than TSW and TFL. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it’s because it’s slower and less eventful than TSW and TFL. It took me a little while to get into this series, and I thought the survival narrative of TBS dragged on a bit, whereas TSW and TFL take place in more dynamic settings, with mThis Shattered Worldore action and a richer cast of characters.

Allison: While TSW might not have been my favorite book, I do love Jubilee and Flynn both. They’re probably my favorite individual characters, though I have a bit of a tough time really buying their romance. It feels the “newest” of all three, which is why I would love to see a novella to connect books 2 and 3. Favorite romance: Hands down, Tarver and Lilac, which seems natural since theirs spanned all three books. Ultimately, my favorite character is Lilac, who has the biggest, most important character arc. I’d argue that she’s the protagonist of the series.

Alyssa: It’s funny, because even though Lilac is the protagonist, I’m less emotionally invested and interested in her than I am the other characters. It may be because I think there’s less action and world-building in TBS than in TSW and TFL. I really like that we witness her relationship with Tarver through the other characters’ perspectives, though. I enjoyed reading about Jubilee and Flynn and Sofia and Gideon more than I did Lilac and Tarver. Horrible things happen in all three books, but I found their narratives more enjoyable than Lilac and Tarver’s story. My favorite characters (and couple) are Sofia and Gideon.

Maria: Sofia and Gideon were my favorite couple too, and I felt like they were constantly trying to outsmart each other (at least for the first half of the book), which created a really interesting dynamic. They reminded me a little of classic old hollywood con artist characters, like Nicole and Simon from How to Steal a Million. I also found their chemistry to be the strongest and most believable. I would say that Sophia is my favorite, even though she makes everything worse with that plasma gun.

Nicola: Yes! That plasma gun is a huge turning point not just for the plot but also for Sofia’s character arc, which is one of my favourite character arcs in the series because of its focus on themes of revenge versus forgiveness. The reconciliation of knowing LaRoux’s actions were wrong while also acknowledging that killing him will only harm herself (and Lilac) is quite powerful, IMO.

Allison: I agree. I love Sofia’s complexity and that she is constantly torn. When we met her in TSW I didn’t get the impression that this is who she was, so it was an interesting surprise to find that she wasn’t a meek character. She was very low key seeming in TSW, so it was cool that she had this vibrant personality in the last book. 

Nicola: One of the the things I love about the way each book has its own pair of protagonists is that it gives us a better chance to see the sheer vastness of the world and different people’s experiences of it. Each novel takes place on a different planet, giving us a glimpse into some of the best parts of the civilisation and some of its worst, between Lilac’s privileged upbringing in metropolitan Corinth and Flynn and Sofia’s childhood on a remote planet with limited resources.

Allison: Speaking of worlds. The. Worldbuilding. I think when I think about these books I think of two words: meticulous and graceful. The ends all tie together so well (which we understand so much better in TFL), but the stories are so gracefully told. I think there are a lot of parallels between this series and The Lunar Chronicles: space opera, re-tellings/re-imagining of classic stories, ensemble casts, big interstellar conflict, each book centered on a romance. The stories couldn’t be more different though. I was impressed with the way there were heavy nods to Titanic, Romeo and Juliet and Alice in Wonderland, but they weren’t out and out retellings. It was more of a feeling, rather than a straight up reinterpretation of classic stories. Atmospheric retellings? I don’t know what to call it, but I like it.

Maria: I agree that the worldbuilding was really well done. I love the term “atmospheric retelling,” Allison. I thought that the writers used Titanic, Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland and other stories as jumping-off points, or loose frameworks for each book, instead of adhering to each element of the plot throughout the entire book. The Lunar Chronicles did the latter, and I felt that Meyer’s commitment to the original fairy tales sometimes hampered the plot and prevented her from being a little more creative with the stories (IMHO). With the Starbound trilogy, I didn’t feel like I was reading a “retelling,” even though I was conscious of the many references to other books/movies.

Nicola: One of the things I love about this series is how each book is different. It’s not just that they have different MCs and, therefore, a different core romance, but each is essentially a different genre. These Broken Stars was a Robinson Crusoe-esque story of shipwreck and survival. This Shattered World was a story of war and rebellion. And Their Fractured Light is almost an espionage story, with Sofia and Gideon infiltrating LaRoux Industries to learn the truth and stop him. On a worldbuilding level, it’s the perfecTheir Fractured Lightt way to show both the vastness of LaRoux’s empire and the diverse lives of the people who live in their world, but it also means that even though there’s an overarching narrative that ties the three books together, they’re also discrete stories. I think even Their Fractured Light, which concludes so much from the first two books, could be enjoyed as a standalone (but why would you want to? They’re all so good!).

Allison: So, do we think that These Broken Stars is supposed to be “Titanic”, This Shattered World is “Romeo and Juliet” and Their Fractured Light is “Alice in Wonderland”? That was kind of the vibe I got.

Nicola: I definitely see Titanic in These Broken Stars and Romeo and Juliet in This Shattered World. I don’t see the Alice in Wonderland parallels as much, but I’m also less familiar with that story and there is a definite surrealism to the way the whispers affect people.

Allison: As well developed as the characters were and as good as the plots were, overall, my feeling about the whispers-as-threat/M. LaRoux storyline was that it was a little flat. The actual plots were fantastic and very compelling, but the underlying root cause of the issue was hard for me to get emotional about. That might just be personal preference. What did you all think about this?

Alyssa: I agree. I like that everything wasn’t explained right away in terms of the whispers and intergalactic travel, but I wish that I had a better sense of LaRoux–his motivation and influence–and this series’ overarching narrative.

Nicola: It worked for me, but I think you’re right that LaRoux/his relationship with Lilac could have been better-established. I feel like I understood his motivations only on a more general level, because I can appreciate the desire to protect your loved ones, if that makes sense. I understood a father wanting to protect his daughter, but less so LaRoux wanting to protect Lilac (besides the fact that I adore Lilac and obviously everyone should want to protect her).

Allison: Thinking back, I do see that his greed was the motivating factor, but it’s not really even him that bothers me, he’s a despicable enough villain. It’s more that I wanted to understand more about why I should care about the whispers. I did care about them, but I guess I wanted a bit more depth — I wanted them to have the depth that the rest of the protagonist characters have because they are protagonists, I think.

Maria: I felt that LaRoux was never really developed a much as the other main characters were, which created a big problem because he was the “villain” so to speak. I didn’t feel like he was particularly scary or intimidating- the books just repeatedly TOLD us that he was, and as any creative writing instructor will tell you, “show, don’t tell.” I also thought that his motivation- greed and the desire for revenge because they didn’t bring his wife back to life- wasn’t strong enough to justify his behavior. I mean, he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds people, and the enslavement of a whole species- those aren’t the kind of things you do just because you want to make money. Throughout all 3 books, I kept waiting for a revelation, or explanation that would really allow us to understand him and his behavior, and it never came.

Alyssa: Yes, exactly! Being TOLD repeatedly (rather than SHOWN) that LaRoux is evil and the most powerful person because of his massive empire bugged me. I feel like LaRoux’s villainy and influence were just givens in this series and never really explained or explored. The loving aspects of his relationship with Lilac seems a bit forced. I wish he were more multidimensional and complex. While The Lunar Chronicles and The Starbound trilogy both deal with similar themes of tyranny and rebellion, Levana is a believable villain, while LaRoux is not.  We almost need a prequel from his perspective, like what Meyer’s did for Levana in Fairest, to better understand this series’ overarching narrative.

Allison: I agree. Even before Fairest, we get the idea that Levana has a backstory that makes her relatable, whereas LaRoux’s backstory is present, but LaRoux still feels not-real to me. I think the series’ primary weakness is that there’s not enough development of LaRoux as a character and that his relationship with Lilac isn’t fleshed out enough.

Nicola: I agree. When Lilac jumped in front of that bullet to save her father, and everyone was just like, ‘Well, of course she did, he’s her father’, I kind of accepted it, but still didn’t really understand it. At the end of These Broken Stars it seemed their relationship had been fractured permanently, and it’s hard to understand that she still loves him when all we’ve really seen of the two of them is her sense of betrayal and her desire to right his wrongs. I think those inter-chapter passages from the POV of the whisper could have really helped here; they show scenes from Lilac’s childhood, but few interactions between her and her father, and I think seeing him playing with her or comforting her would have helped show that he is not simply a monster to her, but her dad.

Allison: Yes!! This was exactly how I felt. It was one of the few moments in the series where I didn’t quite believe what was happening.

Maria: Ha! I thought the same thing. Like,“he’s the root of all your problems, but you took a bullet for him?” I didn’t find it believable, and I had no sense of what their relationship was really like, and why it would prompt her to take such a risk for him (because her getting injured means the whispers could overpower her and then do whatever they wanted).

Allison: Other than that though, I have to say that I adore these books. I’m very into the whole space opera idea and I feel like it can be a very male dominated genre, so it’s so cool to see female authors in YA venturing into this territory.

Nicola: Yeah, and I like how this series doesn’t shy away from ‘feminine’ themes like romance, which is such a cornerstone of YA; instead, it melds it seamlessly into the narrative alongside questions about autonomy and choice.

Allison: I totally agree. This is why so much sci-fi and fantasy in YA consistently impresses me, especially where women authors are concerned. There’s so much great work being done to incorporate common genre conventions and then push them to another level of understanding that blows traditional sci-fi/fantasy away.

Alyssa: Yes, exactly. I love how expansive and yet interconnected this series is with its ensemble cast, multiple worlds, and mix of genres.

Maria: I found this series to be satisfying in a way that many other YA sci-fi and fantasy series I’ve read haven’t been. That’s not to say that those series weren’t great or entertaining in their own right, I just felt that this series did something innovative; something that I hadn’t seen before. The dynamic MCs, different genres, and the deft interweaving of themes from classic stories with new worlds and characters were a powerful combination.

Allison: Thanks for joining us for the first Coven Chat in our multi-week series! Please join in our conversation in the comments.

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