Book Reviews · Fantasy

Review: The Symmetry of Stars by Alex Myers

Beyond the stars, two gods vie for rule of the world.

One stands for Nature – the belief that everything is stamped in flesh from the start. The other, Nurture – the belief that all is potential, that the true self is coaxed out through love and living. And so, they take a bet. Each immortal selects a set of twins as their champions. The twins that prevail in contest will decide which immortal rules…

In a westerly valley, a girl and boy are born to a noble family, to be raised by a mysterious teacher – ready to love and instruct them in everything, regardless of society’s expectations. To the east, a woman washes ashore on an island inhabited only by a sorcerer. With her final breaths, she gives birth to twins. These two are raised with careful neglect by the sorcerer – surrounded not with love but with danger, magic and wildness.

Society expects these children to become men and women. But the immortals care nothing for human norms and raise the twins according to their own ends. Which twins will prevail? What truly matters in determining who a person will become?

Thank you to NetGalley and HarperCollins for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Firstly, what a stunning cover! For someone obsessed with all things celestial, all things swords, and all things fantasy this cover spoke directly to my heart. And I was even more delighted when I started reading and recognised the influence and setting of the Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso. Now for those of you who aren’t familiar, the Orlando Furioso is a very lengthy poem set during the war between Charlemagne’s Christian paladins and the Saracen army that invaded Europe. It follows numerous characters and has a very roaming, if somewhat repetitive, plot. But I studied the poem in school in Italy, and then later at university, and there is something charming about it, so I really enjoyed revisiting some of its characters in this new telling. You absolutely do not need to know the original tale to enjoy The Symmetry of Stars, but I did find it prepared me for the structure of the narrative, which I’ll talk about more in a bit.

‘The stars were creaking in the farthest sphere, shifting and arcing and drawing a dazzle of sparks across the rich dark of Celestial Space, tracing out the shape of a New Age. It would dawn soon.’

I wouldn’t call this a retelling, though. It’s more the author using this classic setting to play around with some very interesting concepts. The first of these concepts is Nurture vs Nature, and this is introduced right away, as the two “gods” who are vying to rule the current age of man are the embodiments of Nurture and Nature, two halves of a whole. One cannot exist without the other, yet they are in constant opposition. When we meet them, they are floating without form in the space between the stars, and as they watch the stars reset for the birth of a new age, they make a wager. Because neither can ever defeat the other directly, they decide to choose a set of souls each, and raise them (or not raise them, as might be the case) according to their embodiment, and at the appointed time the four will meet and the victors will decide which god will rule the age. The entire story is narrated by Nurture, known when they incorporate on earth as ‘Melissa’, a name decided by Nature, who takes the form of a demon-eyed wizard called Atlante.

‘Seeing him, I felt myself again. I am not me without him. One cannot be opposite of nothing, after all. I needed him. I hated him. I would defeat him.’

The second concept that Myers plays around with is gender, which I know is something common to the author’s writing. Nurture and Nature are both genderless, and though they choose binaries when they descend to earth, they never comply entirely to the roles expected on men and women. In the same way, they don’t expect their twins – one boy and one girl in each case – to comply to societal expectations. Because the story is told by Nurture, we spend a lot of time with their twins, Riccardetto and Bradamante, but about 30% of the way through Nurture disincorporates and travels along the flow of time to observe the twins raised by Nature, Ruggiero and Marfisa – or rather, the twins that Nature leaves to their own devises, to roam around an island, mothered only by a wild lioness. In this way, throughout the narrative, we get to see each pair as they grow, and the way they differ as well as the ways they are similar, and watching as their destiny slowly leads them toward each other.

I absolutely loved this book, and it definitely lived up to the expectation I had when I first heard of it, but I do want to give a fair warning: this story does not have a lot of action. It is extremely character focused, with a lot of reflection. The characters who do the action, mainly the sets of twins, are all being observed by Nurture, a non-human character with a much wider perspective, so we don’t see the thoughts and feelings of the human characters firsthand. I enjoyed this because it was reminiscent of the way that the poem Orlando Furioso tends to drop down on one character for a bit before floating above the action, only to narrow down on someone else a while later. I think it was a very clever way for Myers to play with that influence, while still keeping it interesting – especially since the focus in The Symmetry of Stars is only four characters rather than the many one needs to remember in the original story. But yes, just be prepared that this book is not epic fantasy and great battles, but rather a look at what makes us who we are, and an ode to storytelling and how they shape us.

‘How is it that humans walk about trusting that this conglomeration of flesh will continue to do its myriad minor tasks? That is a testament to faith, and they aren’t even aware of it.’

Book Info

Published: 30th September 2021
Genre: fantasy
Pages: 288
Narration style: first person, single narrator
Format read: eARC

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