Fantasy worlds with magical power systems often include the idea of inherited magical ability, with magic handed down from one generation to the next or manifesting in a particular “chosen one” invested with special importance. But is that a good way to hand down power? What if those inheriting the power don’t want it? And what if they don’t want to participate in producing that next generation?
Kerstin Hall considers these questions and more in her new novel Star Eater, which her publisher calls “a phantasmagorical indictment of hereditary power.” I connected with Kerstin to talk about her inspiration for the book, the joys of world-building, the “minefield” of genre categorization, and why some readers insist on labeling books with no teenage characters as YA.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Star Eater is such an original, compelling story, set in a detailed and disturbing world — can you pinpoint your initial inspiration for the book? Was it the Sisterhood? The Aytrium? The ritual cannibalism? Tell us where it started and how it came together.
The cannibalism was definitely foundational. I liked the idea of having an obvious cost to magic, a tactile and immediate trade-off for power. In Star Eater, that takes the form of eating your loved ones piecemeal.
I started the novel about five years ago, and the project has gone through multiple drafts to reach this version. It was a complex and emotionally challenging book to write, but I learned a lot about storytelling in the process.
The world of Star Eater is matriarchal, with the Sisterhood clearly in charge (whether everyone likes that or not) and the power entirely matrilineal, handed down from mother to daughter. Fantasy novels set in matriarchal worlds seem to be surprisingly few and far between, considering how open the genre is to invention and imagination. Why do you think that is?
I’m unsure. I think that, historically, the fantasy genre has shown a tendency to lionise certain stories, frequently those with a powerfully masculine point of view. When that’s established as the canon — the magnum opus — it produces an implicit framework that subsequent works draw upon. Maybe that’s why we have such a large stable of off-brand medieval European settings, because in the Western popular consciousness that’s what classic fantasy “is.”
It feels like the genre is expanding its definitions at the moment, which might have made it easier to sell a novel like mine. To be honest, I never really intended for it to be a story about gender politics; there are definitely more powerful and nuanced takes on that topic than Star Eater provides. I was more interested in interrogating fantasy’s preoccupation with hereditary power and magical lineages — if magic is conferred via inherited ability, how might that influence bodily autonomy? Who is responsible for making more magical babies? Can they opt out? And, if the survival of society depends on said magic, would it be morally justifiable for them to do so?
I’ve seen some reviews that refer to Star Eater as YA and others that call it adult fantasy, or even fantasy/horror — do you see it falling into one category more than any other? Do you think there’s a tendency for fantasy written by women to be categorized as YA even when the author doesn’t intend it to be?
Categorisation is a minefield. I’m perplexed by the number of people referring to Star Eater as science fiction, science fantasy, or space opera — nothing in the promotional material suggests this, but there seems to be a fairly widespread misconception that the story is set in outer space. It was also categorised as “erotic bisexual fiction” on Amazon. I’m likely to disappoint that readership too.
I wrote Star Eater as adult secondary world fantasy. It definitely incorporates horror and weird elements, and my publisher has occasionally referred to it as “gaslamp fantasy.” I have mixed feelings about reviewers calling it YA. On the one hand, the story is a kind of Bildungsroman and it is written in the first person; those elements are common to modern YA. On the other hand, not a single one of the characters is a teenager. While I have no particular objection to fifteen-year-olds picking up the book, I did not set out to cater for them.
I would never be ashamed to have written YA, because it’s a vibrant, diverse, and boundary-pushing genre. But, for a variety of reasons, it is frustrating to be pigeonholed. Nine times out of ten, when a reader deliberately labels an adult novel “YA,” they are using the genre itself as a term of denigration. When applied negatively, it is a rather transparent shorthand for “trite, derivative, and only suitable for children.” Not real literature. I’ve never seen a male author’s fantasy re-categorised in the same way, nor would I expect to.
What’s your favorite part of worldbuilding? Star Eater has a complex, invented mythology, a magic system built on the consumption of human flesh, an elevated world, political intrigue, rebel spy rings, and so much more. What did you enjoy creating the most?
I’m fond of brief, specific details in fantasy worldbuilding, the kind of thing that isn’t strictly necessary to the functioning of the plot, but which gives the setting a sense of depth.
For example, I love inventing weird meals and delicacies — there’s a dinner party about midway through the novel for which I devised an entire menu’s worth of unusual but plausible snacks. These details mostly serve as narrative decoration, but, at the same time, the specific foods described are intended to highlight the hedonism and hypocrisies of the characters present. Their society is suffering a devastating drought, but these women continue to indulge in luxury and extravagance.
It’s fun when worldbuilding dovetails into the conflicts of the narrative; that is something I generally try to achieve in my work. I enjoy the sense of everything “tying together,” from environmental factors, to culture, to politics.
What’s next for you? Do you have another project in the works?
I’m currently writing another fantasy novel, unrelated to Star Eater, which I hope to deliver to my publisher later this year.
The project will probably be somewhat less dark, but larger and more intricate, closer to a New Weird epic. Star Eater’s setting was always a little claustrophobic — because the action takes place on a floating continent, there are hard physical boundaries to the environment that the characters inhabit. That’s not the case with my next book, and I’ve found that change of scope wonderfully liberating.
I’m also busy with edits for the sequel to my 2019 novella, The Border Keeper. Second Spear is novel-length, and should come out in November of this year. I’m particularly proud of that book; it’s very strange, but also quite intimate and heartfelt.
By Kerstin Hall
Published June 22, 2021
Bestselling author of THE MAGICIAN'S LIE and GIRL IN DISGUISE. Feminist, mother, mystery. Now out: WOMAN 99, March 2019 in the US & Canada.