Teixcalaan By Way of Cleopatra: The Stars Undying by Emery Robin

Posted 5th November 2022 by Sia in Queer Lit, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 0 Comments

The Stars Undying (The Empire Undying, #1) by Emery Robin
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Bi/pansexual MCs, secondary nonbinary character, minor M/M
PoV: First-person, past-tense, dual PoVs
Published on: 8th November 2022
ISBN: B09RWPK6SN
Goodreads
four-stars

In this spectacular space opera inspired by the lives and loves of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, a princess finds the potential for power—and romance—after meeting the most influential military man in the galaxy.

Princess Altagracia has lost everything. After a bloody civil war, her twin sister has claimed not just the crown of their planet Szayet but the Pearl of its prophecy, a computer that contains the immortal soul of Szayet's god. Stripped of her birthright, Gracia flees the planet—just as Matheus Ceirran, Commander of the interstellar Empire of Ceiao, arrives in deadly pursuit with his volatile lieutenant, Anita. When Gracia and Ceirran's paths collide, Gracia sees an opportunity to win back her planet, her god, and her throne…if she can win the Commander and his right-hand officer over first.

But talking her way into Ceirran’s good graces, and his bed, is only the beginning. Dealing with the most powerful man in the galaxy is almost as dangerous as war, and Gracia is quickly torn between an alliance that fast becomes more than political and the wishes of the god—or machine—that whispers in her ear. For Szayet's sake, and her own, Gracia will need to become more than a princess with a silver tongue. She will have to become a queen as history has never seen before—even if it breaks an empire.

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.

Highlights

~be careful of pearls and wine
~unreliable narrators ftw
~gods vs AIs
~a rather important carpet delivery

When I opened The Stars Undying and read the first page, my heart leapt: it instantly gave me the same vibes as the Teixcalaan books. Now that I’ve finished it, I would say that The Stars Undying is in some ways a more approachable Teixcalaan – much less baroque and byzantine, but still possessing a proud and regal grace all its own.

she taught me to navigate like star charts those who made up what she called the quality of our city: how to distinguish between money and power, how to foment a grudge or end one, how to appease or to leave hungry.

The Stars Undying is inspired by – or is maybe a retelling of – the story of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony, and there is plenty here to delight anyone who went through a Cleopatra phase (don’t try saying it was just me, I know full well it wasn’t!) Altagracia – Gracia – is a character very worthy of Cleopatra’s legacy; powerfully intelligent, intoxicatingly magnetic, dedicated to her people, and made up of equal parts cool ruthlessness and inexhaustible passion. Ceirran makes a very convincing Julius Caesar. I know a lot less about Mark Anthony, but his reincarnation Anita is a fierce, fiery, feral creature that might have been my favourite character in the entire book.

There are plenty of Easter eggs for the Cleopatra enthusiasts – none of which can’t be appreciated by someone not familiar with Cleopatra’s story/history, so no worries there. But my favourite definitely has to be the pearl – there’s a(n almost certainly fictional) tale of how Cleopatra once dissolved a pearl in wine and drank it, and here in Robin’s debut, the substance called quicksilver pearl (which is utterly destroyed if it comes into contact with alcohol) is a massive part of the plot and worldbuilding. I was (and remain) completely delighted with it, with the way that Robin drew from the lore around Cleopatra for The Stars Undying and spun it into something wildly new!

Other parts of the worldbuilding didn’t quite work for me – if I sit and think about it, I’m very confused about the level of technology; it feels more like Robin was building an aesthetic rather than multiple planets and their cultures. But crucially, that didn’t actually bother me while I was reading. Stars Undying is the kind of book that drags you under like a riptide; you simply can’t look away from the glorious, blazing cast for long enough to nitpick literally anything. Their charisma doesn’t just mesmerise the characters sharing the pages with them; it’s more than strong enough to hypnotise the reader too, and Robin makes it look effortless.

Which. I mean. Kudos!

Inside my chest, my heart turned and caught the light.

Because this book is all about the characters. Gracia and Ceirran are a binary star system, each a radiant, glorious celestial body in their own right, now locked together in an orbit almost too bright to look at. In fact, if I can get very nerdy for a second: the two of them are a cataclysmic variable, a sun and white dwarf bound together, the latter feeding off the former. Specifically, they remind me of ZTF J1813+4251, whipping around each other dizzyingly fast, distorting the galaxy around them with their gravitational waves.

But the thing about cataclysmic variables is that they’re not sustainable; one body is feeding off the other. One will eventually come apart. The title of this book may be The Stars Undying, but one of these incandescent stars is going to die – literally or metaphorically – so the other can blaze all the brighter.

Robin’s skill is in keeping you from being able to tell which is which; is in depicting the passionate struggle of Gracia and Ceirran as they trade roles back and forth. They can’t escape each other; I don’t think they even want to. But they are both simply too much more than the rest of us mere mortals to be able to coexist forever.

(As a side-note? Robin mentioned on Twitter that The Stars Undying was very much written as a Jewish book. I’m not the person to go into that – I don’t know nearly enough about Judaism – but in retrospect? Oh, yes, and oh, wow!)

When I picked up The Stars Undying, I didn’t know if it was meant to be a series opener or a standalone, and the ending felt, to me, like a standalone ending. Which left me unhappy, because as a standalone, Stars Undying just didn’t satisfy. However, I’ve since learned that it will, indeed, have a sequel, which changes things – negates just about everything I didn’t love about it, for one! So I’m not going to talk about those ‘flaws’, because they’re not flaws at all given that this story is not over.

Gods. It’s not over. I have chills. And am looking forward to the sequel with equal parts dread and anticipation and freaking yearning.

You can read the first two chapters for free on io9, and preorder it in all the usual places – which you very much should!

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