The Stars We Steal by Alexa Donne is something of a strange book to try to pin down. It’s a sci-fi story for sure: it takes place on-board ships that are part of a fleet orbiting a frozen planet, waiting for an ice-age to end (it reminds me a lot of Battlestar Galactica in a few ways). However, quite a bit of it also feels very old, kind of like a drama set in high society during the 1900s; it’s even very similar to Jane Austen’s Persuasion. It’s a strange mixture of futuristic and old-worldy that shouldn’t work, but does really well.
The Stars We Steal follows Princess Leonie Kolburg, Leo to her friends, a member of a royal house that has fallen on hard times. Her family is running out of money, their ship is falling apart, and they desperately need to do something to help change their fortunes. Whilst Leonie has designed a new water purification system that could help improve conditions across the fleet and make them rich, her father is banking on her meeting a rich man to marry during the Valg, an event where royals and rich people enter into a Bachelor like event to pair off and get engaged.
Not only is Leo fighting against this expectation to go off and marry some rich man in order to save her family, she’s confronted by a ghost from her past when Elliot arrives at the event. A childhood friend and her former fiance, their relationship fell apart when she was ordered not to marry him because he was poor. Now back, and stinking rich, Leo finds everything thrown on its head when Elliot seems determined to make her life a nightmare.
The science fiction elements of The Stars We Steal are really very subtle, and you can end up forgetting that it’s actually set in space a lot of the time. The focus is instead given over to the people, with the human drama being the driving force behind the story. I have to be honest, I’m not normally one for overly romantic stories, and can find them to be a little mushy at times, but Alexa Donne manages to make Leo and Elliot’s story engaging and interesting rather than over the top.
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Leo isn’t head over heels in love for the whole book, wanting to get together with her crush. Instead, she’s a determined young woman, one with dreams and aspirations of her own that don’t rely on having to get married. Thanks to this, the moments of romance between her and Elliot feel a lot more natural and nuanced, evolving due to the story rather than being the direct force behind the narrative.
The book doesn’t just focus on the romance story, however, but exposes the somewhat sheltered Leo to the injustices in the rest of the fleet. Whilst living a life of luxury and pleasure there are people in the fleet struggling to survive, on ships that are falling apart, fighting to get enough food to get by. This plot is probably one of the most interesting parts of the book, and the hints at a criminal underside of this new society, and possible uprisings from the ‘poorer’ classes was something that I definitely wanted to see more of.
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Whilst these ideas ended up playing a part in Leo’s story they stayed as background details, concepts that she’s aware of but doesn’t really get exposed to. Because of this, it felt like there was something missing from the story. I loved the book, and found the character journeys to be engaging and interesting, but if there had been more focus given over to the rest of the fleet it would have become a perfect score.
The Stars We Steal is an engaging and enjoyable character-driven story that uses its science-fiction setting in fun and interesting ways. It’s full of old fashioned interpersonal drama, queer representation, and big stakes. A great mashing of themes and genres that works brilliantly.
The Stars We Steal is out now from Titan Books.