Review: The Actual Star - Monica Byrne
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: Harper Voyager, September 2021 My Rating: 2/5 stars
I feel very conflicted on how to rate The Actual Star. On the one hand I want to praise it for being “objectively” a very ambitious, well-structured and well-researched novel. On the other hand, there were too many aspects to the execution that didn’t work for me, to say that my personal reading experience was a positive one. I have many thoughts on this one, so be prepared for a long rant...
The Actual Star has the kind of set up that is absolute catnip to me; think Cloud Atlas, spanning milenia, but more neatly connected. At its core is the theme of reincarnation, as we follow a set of three souls, interacting and repeating a pattern over three time periods. In 1012, three royal sibilings prepare for their ascend to the throne, as their Mayan society starts its decline into obscurity. In 2012, American tourist Leah takes a journey of selfdiscovery to Belize, to explore her astranged fathers roots. She feels an almost spiritual connection to Actun Tunichil Muknal, the holy cave of her Mayan ancestors, as well as the two tour-guides who take her there. In 3012, Viajera Niloux finds herself deemed a heretic for posing criticism against the utopian society that has formed based on the history that took place on these ancient Belizian grounds.
What I Loved:
The way the three timelines were interwoven, the parallels, the intricacies and the connections between them *chefskiss*: brilliant. It was everything I wanted from Cloud Atlas and more. Its fascinating to see the ripple-effect of small actions in one timeline, affecting the one after that. Especially when it comes to Leah, who in her own timeline was just a 19-year-old tourist, but whom legacy has been elevated sainthood a thousand years later.
It becomes evident from page one how well-researched and fleshed out all three timelines are. With stories like this, there’s usually one timeline that received a little less attention than the others, but Monica Byrne absolutely balanced these three worlds perfectly. It’s astonishing to see the amount of cultural research and attention to detail that went into this book, and it contributed greatly to me wanting to love this novel more than I did.
What I didn’t love:
Had the novel stayed within this already ambitious scope, and executed it brilliantly: it would’ve been an easy 5-star read. Instead, it becomes almost “greedy” in its ambition, and tosses in a big helping of contemporary (dare I say “trendy”) socio-political takes, regarding sexuality, gender, identity, capitalism, whiteness, and more. It’s not the presence of these topics that bothered me, but the deeply clumsy execution and integration into the story. I’m sorry for saying this, but the amount of social-justice-warrior topics, as well as the complete shallowness with which they’re discussed felt more at home on the twitterfeed of a 14-year-old white girl than on the pages of an otherwise accomplished novel. The overt and “safe”way in which they were presented, lacking any actual discussion felt so superficial and out of place to the point of feeling disingenuous, and “only there for the sake of being socially relevant”. As someone who usually agrees with most of these agenda’s, I don’t think I’ve ever cringed as hard over them being present in a story, as I did here. I can honestly say it ruined the book for me.
I’ll go into my 4 major gripes, so beware minor spoilers below.
- Genderfluidity in the future time-line.
In 3012’s utopian society, gender differences are no more. How do we know this? Because all people now have pluripotent bodies; meaning many have both a penis and a vagina, and use both equally in their sexlives. Also, we now use the suffix -x for everybody, instead of gendered words and pronouns… Seriously!?! That’s what you boil a discussion on gender and society down to down to!?! That feels almost insulting to the entire concept of genderstudies to me.
The previous point may have already given you an idea of how obsessed this novel is with sex, and “being sex-positive”. Its message being: all consentual sex is great sex (yes, that includes an incestuous relationship between siblings), and the more sex the better. Every “empowered female” in this book loves sex and has a lot of it, and it’s never bad or mediocre. It’s such a onedimensional view that borders on toxic feminism that I honestly can’t get on board with.
And by body positivity, I mean fat-activism by constantly describing fat bodies as “fertile and sexy”, yet also using wording like “potbelly” to describe those same bodies…? It all feels weirdly forces and disingenuous to me. Also: I cannot get on board with a message of “body-positivity in a novel that fetishizes rituals of self-cutting in past, present and future. I do not care if you put a trigger-warning in your introduction, rationalizing and glorifying cutting on page is not something I want to read.
- Discussion of “Touristgaze” in Belize
Overlooking the fact that this phraze is thrown in randomly, it could’ve been the start of an interesting debat. Yet it’s hard to take this debat seriously when our protagonist, an American tourist who’s never been to Belize, is presented as being so different, because she feels like she has a Mayan soul and blood”. The fact that she’s the one that is worshiped as a Saint on Mayan land 1000 years down the line, rather than an actual Belizian, feels like the hight of appropriation to me, and rather out of place alongside this message…
If you’d like a more complete list of slightly problematic/cringy things, another Goodreads-user named Marcus did a pretty great job of summing them all up in his review, which you can find here.
Find this book on Goodreads.