Some melodies reach across the stars.
In 2157, the Adryil—an advanced race of telepathic humanoids—contacted Earth. A century later, 15-year-old violist Iris Lei considers herself lucky to attend Papilio, a prestigious performing arts school powered by their technology. Born penniless, Iris’s one shot at a better life is to attract an Adryil patron. But only the best get hired, and competition is fierce.
A sudden encounter with an Adryil boy upends her world. Iris longs to learn about him and his faraway realm, but after the authorities arrest him for trespassing, the only evidence she has of his existence is the mysterious alien device he slipped to her.
When she starts hearing his voice in her head, she wonders if her world of backstabbing artists and pressure for perfection is driving her insane. Then, she discovers that her visions of him are real—by way of telepathy—and soon finds herself lost in the kind of impossible love she depicts in her music.
But even as their bond deepens, Iris realizes that he’s hiding something from her—and it’s dangerous. Her quest for answers leads her past her sheltered world to a strange planet lightyears away, where she uncovers secrets about Earth’s alien allies that shatter everything she knows.
Fan’s intergalactic romance centers on a violist Iris Lei, who is part of a school that is training young Earthlings to become Artists for patronage on a distant planet. In the world of Starswept, the aliens from Adrye have a thriving commerce with Earth, with the former trading technology in return for the art from the latter. Iris’ school, Papillio is one of the many competitive academies for Arts where kids are pitted against each other for glory, and the chance to escape a life of drudgery on a futuristic low-manpower Earth. An Adryil boy, Damiul, breaks into Papillio and makes contact with her, despite the restrictions on communications between the two species. While yearning for him, she also prepares for her future ahead, hoping to attract a patron and also hoping that she meets him for real. Life on Adrye is not as promised, though, and it brings about a shift in what she believed until now.
The most lovingly rendered aspect of Starswept has to be the art itself. Iris, a violist, is a imaginative perspective to read from, her artist’s mind full of dreams, and hopes, and longing for a romance like the one she has heard of in the songs she hears and plays. Realistically, she also knows that none of it is for her, since the contract forbids the Artists from having a personal life in exchange for every comfort provided. For Iris, her music is the thing most important to her, and despite all the hardships and the constant tension in Papillio, she is devoted to her art. Her story plays on the harsh competitive world of performing arts, while also celebrating the creativity of artists. The writing brings out the beauty of music and performance, and the worries and doubts of Iris.
The romance is a significant portion of the novel, even when in earlier stages it does not seem so, because it explains the bond between Iris and Damiul. However, even before it is realized, you see the mutual respect and admiration they have for each other, even through Damiul’s mostly evasive conversations with her. His life is a mystery to her, which she discovers when she finally gets to Adrye and finds out his motives. I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot, so I would just like to say the telepathic aliens arc was played out pretty well. It feels a little like The Hunger Games, too, but only in that the people of Adrye feel like the people of the Capitol. It is also a bit slow to begin with, but by one-third of the novel the pace picks up enough that I couldn’t help myself from continuing till the end – I was nearly speeding through the book, nervous about what would happen next. Additionally, the plot has a diverse cast of characters of color, including Iris, who is described as East-Asian (well, you can already know that through the cover!). A minor grievance I had with the world-building of Adyre was that despite it being an alien world, it is too similar to Earth; it is also made hetero-normative (I was expecting the author to subvert that, but was disappointed) and the society pretty much mirrors the one on Earth.
Overall, it is a well-written start to a science fiction series, and I am interested in how Fan solves the problems of the world and where the plot will lead.
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Snowy Wings Publishing, via Netgalley.