Violet Everly has lived in the shadow of a family curse her entire life. For centuries, the best and brightest Everlys have been taken as punishment for a crime no one remembers. Yet nobody could ever forget Penelope, the all-powerful woman who never ages and always collects her debts. The Everly family owe a generational tithe and in the place of her mother, who disappeared ten years ago in search of a way to break the curse, Violet is next in line to pay the ultimate price. The problem is, Violet has barely even lived. She’s been shielded her entire life, protected by her two uncles, but she’s not willing to give up on her future without a fight.
Desperate to find her mother and end the inexplicable curse on her family, Violet steals away from the only home she’s ever known, travelling the globe in search of answers. Her hunt leads her into a seductive magical underworld of power-hungry scholars and fickle gods. Across continents and years, her path keeps leading her back to Penelope’s quiet and quick-witted assistant, Aleksander. Violet knows he can’t be trusted, that he’s a sharp blade belonging to the woman who’s been tormenting the Everly’s for decades. Yet she can’t resist the pull between them, a pull that could be their mutual salvation, or their ultimate downfall.
A curse can be many things. A wish left out to spoil in the sun, putrid and soft, leaving behind only calcified desire and oxidised envy. Or a poisoned chalice, a mistake tattooed across an entire family tree, with every generation promising, vowing to never sip until they do. Sometimes, it’s a deal and bad luck conspiring like old grifters closing in on an easy mark. For the Everlys, it begins with stardust.”
The City of Stardust is a magical and multifaceted novel – part epic mythological tale, part family tragedy, part star-crossed romance and part urban fantasy, with a little bit of dark academia thrown in. Yet of all the impressive things about this book, and there are many, the one thing that stands out the most is just how beautifully written it is. In fact, it’s difficult to believe that this is Summers’ debut. The scope of the author’s imagination conjures comparisons to V. E. Schwab and Erin Morgenstern, drawing readers into a darkly glamourous and damning world. We experience it alongside Violet as she infiltrates the magical society she’s been purposely kept apart from and tries to unravel the mystery surrounding Penelope’s grudge against her family. In that respect, it’s a very intimate story, despite crossing borders and time in the blink of an eye.
Summers’ novel moves at a brisk pace and it’s easy to get caught up in the fleeting, transportive and high-stakes nature of the story. However, the swift movement of time and the brevity of chapters does create something of a stop-start feel to the book. Just as you’re fully immersed in one stage of Violet’s quest, the action halts and the story jumps ahead, pulling readers out of the moment. There’s such a lot going on in this novel and much of it remains unexplained. It would have been nice for certain parts of the story to be a little longer, exploring character relationships and motives in more depth. But that’s really another testament to Summers’ writing and the complex story she’s created; you want to linger in the lovely moments and dwell in the melancholy of the sad ones too.
Pacing issues aside, Summers deftly weaves worlds like an embroiderer weaves thread. The tender yet tortured relationship between Violet and Aleksander creates a delicate balance of light and darkness throughout the book. When they’re together, it feels as if they can accomplish anything, whether that be breaking family curses or shaking off the shackles of an oppressive mistress. Every time they part ways, you can feel the crack deepening down the middle of their hearts. Theirs isn’t an easy or trusting relationship; they both blame each other for aspects of their lives they arguably had no control over in the first place. Yet even when it feels as if they’ll be the ruin of each other, there’s still that little glimmer of hope that they’ll find their way out of the shadows pressing down on them.
The City of Stardust is billed as a standalone contemporary fantasy but there’s a whole scarcely explored society in this book, with plenty of threads left dangling involving peripheral characters, which this reader hopes might just lead to spin-offs. But whether Georgia Summers’ next book is set within the same universe or an entirely new world, if it’s as beautifully written, intricately plotted and atmospheric as this one, it’ll be another work of pure magic.
The City of Stardust is published by Hodderscape on 25 January 2024