City of What-Could-Have-Been: City of Stardust by Georgia Summers

Posted 19th January 2024 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 2 Comments

The City of Stardust by Georgia Summers
Genres: Fantasy, Portal Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bi/pansexual PoV character/love interest
PoV: Third-person, present-tense; multiple POVs
Published on: 30th January 2024
ISBN: 9781399714235

Slip into a lush world of magic, stardust, and monsters in this spellbinding contemporary fantasy from debut author Georgia Summers.

For centuries, the Everlys have seen their best and brightest disappear, taken as punishment for a crime no one remembers, for a purpose no one understands. Their tormentor, a woman named Penelope, never ages, never grows sick – and never forgives a debt.

Violet Everly was a child when her mother left on a stormy night, determined to break the curse. When Marianne never returns, Penelope issues an ultimatum: Violet has ten years to find her mother, or she will take her place. Violet is the last of the Everly line, the last to suffer. Unless she can break the curse first.

Her hunt leads her into a seductive magical underworld of power-hungry scholars, fickle gods and monsters bent on revenge. And into the path of Penelope's quiet assistant, Aleksander, who she knows cannot be trusted – and yet to whom she finds herself undeniably drawn.

With her time running out, Violet will travel the edges of the world to find Marianne and the key to the city of stardust, where the Everly story began.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


~the keys are portals
~the portals are also portals
~deals with the Devil are safer than deals with angels
~(they’re not angels)
~best not get your fortune told

Stylistically, City of Stardust is strongly reminiscent of Erin Morgenstern – the prose and vibes made me think of Night Circus pretty much immediately, though I really want to emphasise that there are no other similarities between City of Stardust and either of Morgenstern’s novels. They are about completely different things! Do not come here looking for a magical circus or an underground world of books! But if you’re looking for something that has the vibes of Night Circus; if you enjoy Morgenstern’s writing style and would like to read something like that; then City of Stardust will probably tick your box.

It just…probably won’t tick many other boxes.

Credit where credit is due: City of Stardust is pleasantly twisty, not in a shock value way (well, not much) but more in an attempt to be true to life, where magical solutions don’t spring out of thin air, and quests sometimes fail, and being good doesn’t by default mean that the bad things will never happen to you. Which makes it sound very cynical…and I guess it is, kind of? But not bitter, or resigned, or pessimistic. More…merciless is the term that comes to mind. This isn’t a grimdark book, at all, but Summers does a good job of going against reader expectations – she knows that we’ve read enough fantasy books to know how stories like this ‘should’ go, but she’s not going to follow those well-trod paths. Be prepared to be surprised. Be prepared to be genuinely scared for the main character/s. Be prepared to see Summers weave her own pattern of story.

The problem with this is that it’s mostly very underwhelming. Yes, in real life we don’t always get answers to everything – but I kind of resent not getting them in my fiction. Yes, in real life people get scared and don’t do the heroic thing – but that’s not really what I’m here for. Yes, in real life we sometimes have to face the fact that the person we’re depending on is going to let us down – but seriously? I’m here for the escapism, ma’am! And most of this happens without a bang; quests or attempts or questions just fizzling out, rather than Summers turning the tables on us dramatically. So they don’t feel like twists or gasps or aha! moments; it’s more like wet tissue paper coming apart in your hands. Not badly written, but not impactful, either.

To be brutal, that kind of sums up the whole book: not very impactful. City of Stardust is pages and pages of style over substance, leaning into vibes and brief moments of beautiful description to carry a story that’s been shaved so thin it can no longer stand under its own weight. There’s the skeleton of a very decent story here (albeit not the one I wanted; more on that in a sec), but Summers skims over it, never giving us a chance to really sink our teeth in or become immersed, or invested, in the world she’s created. Take Violet’s so-called ‘hunt’: we barely see any of it, because Summers time-skips over most of it! We never see how Violet’s learned the skills she uses, or where she got her contacts, etc; they were gathered during the hand-wavey time-skip, and we just have to be satisfied with that.

A year quickly trickles away to a year. To six months, then three.

That doesn’t help with the problem that Violet feels very passive, despite the fact that she does, technically, do things. In the very last ‘act’ of the book she’s pretty great, but for most of the story she feels as though she’s drifting, Summers nudging her into place for each chapter because that’s where she needs Violet to be, not because Violet is any kind of driving force herself. The love of books and stories never really came through for me; it’s something we’re told, not shown, and I was never convinced by her supposed passion to see other worlds – we’re told it, over and over, but I never felt it. Violet is very much a character moved around by the plot, rather than a character who makes plot happen.

And honestly, she doesn’t make sense as a character. How does this young woman, who’s never gone to school or been further from home than the cafe where she works, know how to navigate airports and masques and secret societies? When did she get lessons on how to steal invites to exclusive parties? View Spoiler » She’s somehow very capable and supposedly independent (even though, for most of the book, she depends on Aleksander and Caspian for pretty much everything) but her backstory doesn’t explain how she could have become this kind of person. She ought to be a shrinking – hah! – violet, overwhelmed by how big the world is, with little to no understanding of normal human interaction or social skills. But she’s not, and it’s both bad writing and lazy, because it would have been so easy to have the uncles who raise her to do so much more to prepare her. One of them’s some sort of international criminal; he could have taught her everything she needed! But no. She’s just magically a (washed-out shell of a) Strong, Confident-Competent Heroine, Because Reasons.

Aleksander, our sometimes-POV character and love interest, isn’t exactly more interesting, but is in a more interesting situation, with all kinds of constraints and pressures – and punishments – that make sense of his choices and actions. If he comes across as passive sometimes, it at least makes sense.

But forget the characters, let’s look at the fantastical elements: a city in another world, magic keys, fortune-telling cards. All glimpsed, sometimes dangled tauntingly in front of our faces, but never really explored. Fidelis, the magical city in another world that everything kind of revolves around, is run by the mystical Scholars – but what the fuck do the Scholars actually do? I have no idea. Aleksander wants nothing more than to become one of them, has spent his whole life training to do so, and by the end of the book I still had no clue what that meant. And once we started learning about the astrals – who are maybe living stars, maybe angels, maybe gods – I wanted a book about them. I wanted their story! My gods, you seriously wrote a book about this wishy-washy woman on a hand-wavey, time-skippy attempt to track down her mother, when you had living stars in your back pocket?! I want the backstories of the astrals we meet in City of Stardust; I want to see the realm they come from; I want to see their adventures and lives and loves and wars. And we got none of that. They’re the most beautiful, mysterious, powerful beings in the book, the best parts of the book, and they’re just a tease. I have no idea how or why Summers was more interested in writing Violet’s story than theirs!

At least in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, though we don’t learn much about how the stars live when they’re not fallen to earth in human form, we do get, you know, the whole realm of Faerie. Summers gives us neither: nothing about the stars, and only the tiniest, faintest taste of Fidelis.

The prose is pretty, but the story is thin, worn thinner by the way it skims over so much time, the way it barely touches on its own magic. It’s the wrong story; if this book had only focused on different elements, changed its perspective, then it could have been seriously amazing. The efforts to be different and do the unexpected fall flat, left me disappointed and unsatisfied with the attempts. As-is, City of Stardust doesn’t live up to its promises. I’d be willing to read more from Summers – she knows how to put words together beautifully, and I loved the magic and strangeness that her imagination dreamed up. If she lets us dive in and embrace the magic next time, I’m pretty sure it’ll knock our socks off.

But right now? City of Stardust does not sparkle, and if you want more than vibes, I recommend looking elsewhere.

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2 responses to “City of What-Could-Have-Been: City of Stardust by Georgia Summers

  1. Gemma

    I’m glad I found someone who thought the same as I did with this book. I kept waiting for the plot to properly kick off and just kinda didn’t. Things would be introduced and then pretty much dropped. Meeting all the different people at the party didn’t really seem to add to anything, I thought we would get more about how she was getting into their society. More about why the gods were chained up, how were they chained up? I’m feeling a bit disappointed I have to say.

    • Sia

      Yes!!! I don’t understand the people who are in love with it. I’m very much in love with what it COULD have been, but the book we got…did not live up to its potential, alas.

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