ARC Review: SECRETS OF THE STARCROSSED by Clara O’Connor

I was given an eARC of the book by the publishers through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. It has not affected my opinions.

Title in white on green above a celtic knot
Genre: Dystopia Romance
Age Range: YA/NA?
Star Rating: 1 star
Series: yes - first in trilogy

Synopsis:

Book cover for SECRETS OF THE STARCROSSED: title in green above a celtic knot on dark green

In a world where the Roman Empire never fell, two starcrossed lovers fight to ignite the spark of rebellion…

Londinium, the last stronghold of the Romans left in Britannia, remains in a delicate state of peace with the ancient kingdoms that surround it. As the only daughter of a powerful merchant, Cassandra is betrothed to Marcus, the most eligible bachelor in the city.

But then she meets Devyn, the boy with the strange midnight eyes searching for a girl with magic in her blood.

A boy who will make her believe in soulmates…

When a mysterious sickness starts to leech the life from citizens with Celtic power lying dormant in their veins, the imperial council sets their schemes in motion. And so Cassandra must make a choice: the Code or Chaos, science or sorcery, Marcus or Devyn?

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


Review:

If I’m being honest, I went into this book with an attitude that wasn’t very conducive to a good reading experience. I was expecting very little of it – it is really not my typical sort of book as it’s a fantasy/dystopia romance with a love triangle. I read it purely to see if my many assumptions of the book based on the premise, title, cover (etc.) had been right.

90% of my assumptions were right.

The best way to describe this book is that it is every single trope from early 2010s dystopia rolled together, with as many romance clichés as possible. The only cliché that wasn’t present was the advertised love triangle was not a love triangle, as Cass had no feeling for Marcus, the man she was matched with.

I don’t want to talk too much about the plot here, as it was just a jumble of increasingly unbelievable events. To prove to myself that I wasn’t making it up, I wrote a summary of every chapter as I read, and I’m going to post that (though edited a bit to make it a little more neutral) a month after the book is released.

To give you an idea of what the book was like, here is a snippet from Chapter Four when Cass and Devyn are meeting secretly.

“Cassandra,” he grated, “you play games you don’t understand. You’ve been a good girl all your life. Why change now?” He warned me off, but didn’t move back and his hands didn’t push me away.

I met the darkly glittering eyes of this boy I barely knew and certainly didn’t understands. The soft, slight version sharpened to reveal the truth of him. Why would anyone use cutting-edge to appear more ordinary?

A part of me wanted to back away. I felt intimidated, threatened by this version of him. The tremble of a doe on seeing a suspected predator step out of the shadows ran through me. I embraced it, the electricity of my blood swirling through me, making me feel utterly alive. As if up until this moment I’s been sleepwalking, this touch pilling me out of a drugged sleep. Dry-mouthed, I wet my lips with a flick of my tongue, spotting his eyes track the tiny movement.

Maybe I’ve never had anyone tempt me before. Why take a nibble of something you’re not hungry for?” The huskily spoken words accurately summed up my previous indifference to the flirting that would so horrify my father. It was more than I planned to share, though

CHAPTER FOUR

There were some odd turns of phrase too. Why waste calories on some passing fancy when the most delectable custom-made dessert was waiting for you? Are we actually discussing chastity before a matched marriage like we’re calorie counting? Yes we are.

Cass was a very bland character. She calls her appearance a “romantic dream” but there wasn’t much else to her. She had no defining characteristics. She isn’t funny or clever or have a temper. Anything that you might use to label her. Why should I – or anyone – care about her when she had no personality to latch onto?

They kept talking about “The Code”. At first I thought it was the rules for their way of life, but then it seemed to be some sort of digital technology/firewalls. But why does that mean that she was “living according to the Code”?

The age range of this book is hard to pin down. Goodreads calls it YA, Waterstones has it under Children and Teens on their website. It feels very YA. However, half way through, we learn that Cass has had her 21st birthday. Up until this point, I had thought her 18 because of the premise and story type. So I’m guessing this is a NA book that can’t be called that as NA isn’t considered an age range outside of Indie spheres.

From the series title (The Once and Future Queen), I’m guessing this series is an Arthurian retelling. There are references to Arthurian characters, but nothing that says retelling to me. The world building, however, was absolutely all over the place and unbelievable. Perhaps someone else might not have found it so unbelievable, but I am a Brit who knows this country’s history very well, particularly the periods relevant to this book’s lore. I was rolling my eyes and then furiously messaging friends over the Alternate Universe history of the world, and how it made no sense.

Let’s start with the geography of the city. I know my home very well. In this Alternative Universe, the city is constrained by its walls, a barrier against magic that let them use tech inside. So the city has built upwards. Not quite sure if this means no light gets to the bottom as there are layers above, or just there are high rises. It doesn’t say.

The city does not seem to have the limits of the old Roman walls as the Docklands are within the walls, which is very far from what were the Roman limits. I have no idea how big the city is them, as that is quite far for the city to stretch. Maybe a quarter of the size of actual London?

The Ritz also exists, as does St Bart’s and the Savoy. Places like this have names that make no sense in this world’s history. Let’s take the Isle of Dogs for example (apparently still within the walls. These are ENOURMOUS walls) If there was no ruling monarchy controlling Londinium, there would be no royal kennels on the former marshland. So the name makes no sense.

Which brings me to the “history”. So the Roman Empire never fell, but has been fighting the native Britons, Celts etc ever since. They have the North, Wales, and Cornwall, and the Romans the South East. The problem is the medieval “history” – that is so important to the series and who Cass is – makes no sense under this premise.

We have two old lines mentioned: the Courtneys (sometimes known in our world as the de Courtneys) and the Plantagenets (aka, the medieval royal line descending from Henry II).

So, the Courtneys. A French noble family that quarelled with Louis VII of France in the 1100s and part defected to England, establishing the English House of Courtney (hence the de). If the Roman Empire never fell, then there wasn’t a French king for a Courtney to fall out with and come to England. And yet with have this old “Briton” family that’s so important and part of Marcus’ lineage. The old Britons of our world did have a French link – they were a people group who emigrated from Brittany – where we’d called them the Bretons. Not to Burgundy where the de Courtney’s were from.

The Plantagenets are a major part of British history. The line of Monarchs from Henry II to Richard III are the Plantagenets, named after a flower Henry II’s father was associated with. They are also French descent. Anjou and Aquitaine, NOT Normandy, where the book claims they were living. Apparently, in the book, the Plantagenets fled Normandy for England after the Empire stamped out a rebellion.

And yes, there are references to the Wars of the Roses. The Plantagenets had two branches, York and Lancaster, which came together to be the Union of Roses, but then York died out. The widow of the last Lancastrian King married a certain Owain Tewdwr of the House of Glyndwr (aka Owain Tudor married Catherine de Valois) and started a new royal line – the Tewdwrs, with no reference to the fact that their son married another branch of the Lancastrian line, hence Henry Tudor’s claim to the English throne.

Instead, the son married the Lady of the Lake (one of the few Arthurian references). He also claimed descent from High King Arthur (the other Arthurian reference of the book) and pushed the Romans back to the walls of Londinium, where they built a palace. I’m assuming it’s supposed to be the lost palace of Richmond.

This might be a nitpick from me, but it was so hard to take any of the story seriously because of all the tropes and eye roll moments that this bad unbelievable, hole-filled world building took me utterly out of the world. It wasn’t just the history that confused me either.

The school that Cass attends is called a Civics (I think). Given the uncertainty over the book’s age range, this might be the world’s version university? It feels like the sort of American High school we see in US YA. They study for midterms. They have lockers and cliques. The whole thing felt very American and not at all British. Which, given it is set in Londinium, was very disconcerting. (Yes, I know it’s AU, but as the Roman Empire never fell, the US would have had a very different history and so the US school system would not be the norm)

The rest of the world feels similarly American, with the shopping malls and the types of parties and events on Cass’ social calendar. Books set in England that do not feel like they are in England are my pet peeve. It’s usually because the author hasn’t done enough research into our country and culture, and it sticks out a mile to a Brit.

The world beyond Londinium was equally confusing. What was the history of the Roman Empire and America? Britannia is described as being the edge of the Empire, so is America the land of its native peoples? There is mention of the Aztecs and Incas trading in London. Elsewhere it says there was no much trade with there, so coffee is not a common good.

If Londinium is the edge of the empire, how is it seemingly so important? The book claims that Londinium is an important, powerful, wealthy city as it is a tech hub, but elsewhere it says it is not easy to get to Britannia because of the magic. You would not create your biggest tech hub in a location you cannot easily get to. Plus, as the Britons and other natives have control of much of the country, the city cannot support its own food needs on the land it controls. Yet, if it is not safe to travel across the sea for everyone, how do they import? These traders are not allowed ashore (no reason given) so stay on the ships.

The religion is also up in the air. They seem to be cursing using the Roman gods, but there are mentions of Christian “temples” in the poor districts. Cass refers to it as a “phase the empire went through”. The Roman faith itself is not mentioned beyond cursing. No going to make sacrifices for good luck or as part of festivals etc.

All in all, it was a very confusing book with a cliché plot and a bland character that could not keep me interested.

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