This is not The Hunger Games. I feel that distinction has to be made early on because I was very close to dismissing The Stars Never Rise as suchThis is not The Hunger Games. I feel that distinction has to be made early on because I was very close to dismissing The Stars Never Rise as such and putting it down because the beginning is the same, albeit more brutally realistic. A neglectful mother who is rarely seen or heard, a big sister who has to do everything she can to put food on the table and clothes on their backs while also taking care of her younger sister. The Hunger Games was "just" a dystopia, this is also urban fantasy. Demons are walking the streets wearing humans like clothes while quietly consuming their souls.
In a strictly controlled environment, Nina days away from her 17th birthday and 15-year-old sister Melanie have to be careful to obey the rules lest the all powerful Unified Church find out their mother is a crackhead sinner which would see them sent to a children's home. As it appears their mother won't make it to Melanie's 18th, Nina reluctantly plans to pledge a lifetime of servitude to the Church in order to keep Melanie out of an orphanage for the next three years. What Nina doesn't bank on is Melanie's rebellious nature culminating in an unplanned and illegal pregnancy that Melanie's desperate to keep despite the challenges ahead. (Understatement.) To make matters worse Nina accidentally kills her mother (there's alot more to it than that) and goes on the run, painted as a demon-possessed serial killer by the Church.
There are some striking similarities to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Church and state are one and the same after an apocalyptic event. Purity and virtuousness rule. Procreation is under strict control and punishments are lethal and very, very public. Propaganda is ever present and self-determination is pure fantasy.
TV show Dominion appears to share the same world with The Stars Never Rise. Demons seeking hosts to possess. The war against demons wiping out a large percentage of the human population with those remaining living in walled towns and cities, always on guard against the possessed.
Skimming much of the text for the first two thirds of the book to concentrate on the dialogue was the only way I could continue reading. Obviously I didn't miss much as I never became confused enough to go back to read it properly. Pacing is generally too slow and boring whereas the tense moments, more common in the home stretch, are when everything speeds up and suddenly every word is relevant and interesting.
Figuring out the admittedly riveting twists and turns before the characters was frustrating. All the signs about the truth behind the Church were there. Although Mrs Kane's plans for her poor daughters were a complete surprise.
[SPOILER ALERT: Who would expect a mother to breed and sell her children for mere personal gain? I also don't get the assumption that an exorcist can be possessed, wouldn't one cancel the other out?]
I think the only reason I didn't give up on The Stars Never Rise altogether is the shocking brutality. Sterilizing fifteen-year-olds, including Nina, for having a few non-lethal allergies because they could weaken the next generation, burning innocent children at the stake, the demeaning things Nina had to do in order to get away with stealing - disrobing and allowing herself to be groped. All of that kept me reading despite Nina's clichéd insta-love interest Finn. (At least there's no love triangle, like in Vincent's other works.) I'm not so secretly hoping that Finn's body hopping status means he's really a demon. Or in Supernatural style, maybe he's an angel. Since he grew up with Maddock, seemingly born with and bonded to him - perhaps he received two souls at birth instead of one.
While we're on the subject of souls . . . Everyday we're reminded that our population growth is out of control. Star Trek: Next Generation created a world where 60-year-olds die to prevent themselves from becoming a burden to younger generations. Today we have the problem of needing ever more taxpayers than the increasing number of pensioners in order to pay for pensions and elderly care.
Well, here the demons feast on the souls of their hosts and once that soul has been extinguished they either change hosts or become Degenerates, when the host bodies mutate into monsters described like the vampires from the Kate Daniels world. But that's okay, because there's a neverending supply of souls. Until the the day came when babies inexplicably started dying upon arrival into this world due to a lack of soul. To combat this, volunteers usually offer up their souls (and their life) for their unborn grandchildren and people aged 50 and over are automatically added to a community list should no family or friends of any age come forward. Sometimes there are no donors available and the babies die. Anyway, this regulates population.
With all of that in mind, there's only one logical conclusion. Human extinction. No one seems to acknowledge the fact that humanity is doomed. Countless demons eating up the limited supply of souls means a humanless world is inevitable. Unless this reincarnation process is broken by some miracle that no longer requires state sanctioned suicide to provide souls for the young, then this story isn't going anywhere. A handful of exorcists, i.e. Nina the Demon Slayer and co., won't be able to save our species. There will be no happy ending.
Deus ex machina is not something I enjoy, so where's the incentive to read The Flame Never Dies the sequel in this duology?
I've now read twelve works by Rachel Vincent. Political intrigue and edge-of-your-seat tension in her adult Shifters series were amazing. Unique worldbuilding certainly set the young adult Soul Screamers series apart from the pack, while also never shying away from the tough topics that entrance and haunt adolescents such as sex and drugs, and I can say the same about The Stars Never Rise. Gritty relationship drama is another special talent Vincent possesses although little of that is present here other than the weirdness when kissing your boyfriend means kissing multiple males (no girls so far) that he temporarily inhabits.
Character development feels a little . . . iffy. Melanie, Nina's pregnant sister, is a rebel determined to live her life the way she wants instead of how the Church wants. Falling in love wasn't expected. Clearly the pregnancy wasn't planned and certainly threw a spanner into the works, proving her guilty of both fornication and procreation without a license. This strong, smart fifteen-year-old has a fleshed out personality, others don't. Her sister Nina is the stereotypical fighter and protector willing to sacrifice her life in every way for her sister (and possibly Nina's only friend Anabelle). And Anathema, the small band of exorcists plus the disembodied Finn, seem to share a strong-willed yet affable nature apart from the slightly meaner but more practical Devi. Honestly, I couldn't always tell which of them was talking and I got that irrepressible do-gooder vibe you get from Jehovah's Witnesses on your doorstep that sometimes came across as creepy. I shouldn't be thinking that about the good guys. Bad guys, yes; good guys, no.
To sum up, excellent immersive rather than info-dumped worldbuilding, a diabolical political landscape and shocking twists and turns are the positives. But overall, the snail pace, figuring out the mysteries some time before the characters and the lack of forethought regarding the fate of humanity kind of dampened my enthusiasm somewhat.
If my library happens to stock The Flame Never Dies, I may read it, but I'm not going to go out of my way to finish this duology unless I see some stellar reviews, and maybe not even then....more