‘Engagement season is in the air. Eighteen-year-old Princess Leonie “Leo” Kolburg, heir to a faded European spaceship, has only one thing on her mind: which lucky bachelor can save her family from financial ruin?
But when Leo’s childhood friend and first love, Elliot, returns as the captain of a successful whiskey ship, everything changes. Elliot was the one who got away, the boy Leo’s family deemed to be unsuitable for marriage. Now he’s the biggest catch of the season and he seems determined to make Leo’s life miserable. But old habits die hard, and as Leo navigates the glittering balls of the Valg Season, she finds herself falling for her first love in a game of love, lies and past regrets.’
The Stars We Steal is an entertaining and easy read based around some of the story threads from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Set in a future where the citizens of Earth have taken up space flight, following implied damage to the planet, the descendants of the royal families across the globe still claim their titles, if, for some, only in name, and live on a series of spaceships, some more grand than others. Leonie is eighteen and princess of a kingdom that no longer really exists, her father doing her no favours in his ineptitude in handling money and relying on the future marriages of his daughters to maintain and improve their lifestyle. For a while now, she and her family have been relying on her aunt to support them, leading Leo to decide that the best thing to do is to rent out their own ship in an effort to make some money. What she isn’t expecting is for the boy she was once engaged to (for all of twelve hours), Elliot, to be one of those renting her – their – former home.
The Valg season involves the children and heirs of the various European families taking part in a series of social events and tests in an attempt to match them with their best potential partner. As they are unwilling to entertain the idea of marrying from any other class, there is a limited range of partners available when looking to avoid intermarrying too closely, and with resources dwindling for some, the season is less about love and more about looking for someone of appropriate rank and means. Despite this, and despite knowing her family urgently needs her to find a wealthy husband, Leo refuses to engage (pardon the pun) with the aims of the season for much of the narrative, going out of her way to avoid spending time with those who could aid her and those who see her as a target for a title, for they know full well that her family needs assistance. It’s clear that Leo, contrary to what she tries to tell herself, has never got over Elliot, and this is just one of the things that keeps her from fully participating in the meaning of the Valg. She is unwilling to see herself as a bargaining chip and plainly finds the behaviour of some characters disquieting, and for more than the fact that their attention is so often fixed on Elliot.
Leo’s father is a somewhat unlikeable man, especially in his attitude towards what his daughters can do for him and how he simultaneously seems unwilling (or unable) to figure out what he may be able to do to save his family from ruin. His incompetence is almost painful, as is his focus on his title and how people perceive him, and it is no wonder that Leo has trouble being willing to do anything that might rescue him in particular, when all he stands to do is waste more money and become dependent on her for the rest of his days. If I’m honest, I wasn’t often too fond of the rest of her family either, though they do have some redeeming moments reasonably late into the story. This is, perhaps, because Leo’s female relatives are seen and written as rivals who cannot be supportive of each other, which, in the context of the novel upon which The Stars We Steal is based, would be very common, given that women were absolutely dependent on marriage to ensure that they had a home and did not become destitute and reliant on others. In contrast, her friendship with Evgenia is much more positive, and Evgenia herself is one of several LGBTQ+ characters in the story, the future in which the narrative unfolds a more comfortable one in many respects, for it does not seem judgemental (though there remains the fixation on furthering bloodlines).
The Stars We Steal may appear to be primarily concerned with romance, yet there is a huge range of social commentary underneath the narrative concerning the Valg and its families, much like the different levels and layers that the ‘average’ people and the servant class that exists inhabit. That, in this imagined future, a class system still exists and the people of the ‘lower orders’ are left to suffer and serve says much about what we like to ignore about the present. We can claim that equality for all exists and that the class system is history, but to do so is to be as Leo’s father is: wilfully ignorant of the truth. This future has many freedoms, but girls of rank are still reliant on men and still seen as a means of producing children and securing money and property; politics is still as murky and corrupt as ever, and the rich few exist to exploit the many. In this, Leo and Elliot stand to better the lives of those less fortunate in their universe, if they can better navigate the strands of society that wish to keep everything as it is.
Out on 4th February in the UK, The Stars We Steal is a unpredictable look to the future with echoes of the past, both entertaining and thought-provoking in its constructs. Thank you, Titan Books, for sending me a copy to review!