A Wilderness of Stars by Shea Ernshaw

Review by Lisa Matthewson

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, November 29, 2022

400 pages, hardcover, $23.99 CAD, 978-1-6659-0024-9

Ages 13+

Young Adult, Fiction, Fantasy

A scream rises in my ears, a wailing cry – a sound that is coming from some dark place inside my gut. I feel myself shatter, every bone and fiber disintegrating apart. I feel my skin peel open, baring the last of me, the awful, worthless pieces that are left. The air is a swarm of bees in my ears, my eyes starting to lose their sight, a blackness seeping over my vision.

Seventeen-year-old Vega is in a race against time. She is the Astronomer, destined to undertake this mission since her birth. Following an urgent signal in the stars, Vega must leave her secluded valley, find an unknown Architect, and travel with him to the sea. If she fails in her quest, everyone will perish. On her perilous journey Vega contends with hunger, storms, betrayal, loss, and murderous gangs seeking information and revenge. She also struggles with her deepening feelings for her fellow traveller, the green-eyed Noah. In the end, will Vega have to choose between her destiny and her heart’s desire?

It sounds exciting, right? And it is. It’s also beautifully written, packed with superbly evocative imagery. No action is small enough to escape Shea Ernshaw’s descriptive talents. People’s eyes never simply move; they snap, click, graze, cut, drag, scrape, grate, or flash. Emotions are powerfully conjured through intense bodily sensations: Vega’s heart hitches, it crashes against her ribs, it is a club against her chest. Her throat feels as if she’s holding back all the night sky, her chest coils tight like a rope near breaking. This entire novel reads like a haunting, passionate poem.

Despite the powerful imagery and remarkable writing, I did struggle with two issues when reading this book. The first is pacing. The central plot is that Vega must reach the sea, but why this is required is not explained until more than 300 pages in. This made it hard for me to get on board with the quest. A similar mystery surrounds the setting, with readers kept in the dark about when and where the action takes place until the final big reveal. Vega herself knows everything, so as the narrator, she could easily have dropped hints along the way. For this reader at least, having some clues to decipher would have increased my buy-in and the suspense.

The plot also seems to suffer from some inconsistencies. I was left with many questions, chiefly about the reasons for various hazards that Vega is exposed to. For example, she invites attack wherever she goes by sporting a visible tattoo, but the motivation for having the tattoo never becomes clear. Several other impediments to her journey seem to rest on similarly flimsy grounds, including the fact that vital knowledge is held only by the Architect – a person whose identity or location Vega does not know – and that for some reason she must begin to seek him only at the last minute, creating a seemingly gratuitous time pressure. Finally, my biggest query about the plot is how such a totally unrealistic plan for saving the planet could possibly work.

Like The Hunger Games and Divergent, A Wilderness of Stars features a strong, brave female protagonist in a dystopian world trying to save her people. Vega could have been the next Katniss or Tris – and perhaps for many readers, she will be. I’m glad I read this book, but for me, it was a beautiful near miss.

Lisa Matthewson is a sixth-generation New Zealander and a first-generation Canadian. She teaches Linguistics at the University of British Columbia. She is taking creative writing courses in the hope of one day writing historical fiction for middle-grade readers.

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