May 11, 2021

Book review: THE NECESSITY OF STARS by E. Catherine Tobler

The Necessity of Stars by E. Catherine Tobler

The official blurb:

Plagued by the creeping loss of her memory, diplomat Bréone Hemmerli continues to negotiate peace in an increasingly climate-devastated world, ensconced in the UN-owned estate Irislands alongside her longtime friend and companion Delphine.

The appearance of the alien Tura in the shadows of Bréone’s garden raises new questions about the world’s decline. Perhaps, together, Tura and Bréone will find a way forward… if only Bréone can remember it.

Why I loved this book:

The Necessity of Stars is truly a many-splendored book. Tobler deftly weaves together several story threads into a haunting, rich, and exquisitely crafted science fiction novella that I could not put down while reading, and that still lingers in my mind weeks later.
For one thing, this is a complex, subtly shaded alien invasion story that is not focused on extermination and war, but rather on survival and subterfuge. These aliens might be either predator or prey, or both, depending on the context. They live among the humans and are not new arrivals, but they mostly choose to remain unseen, though they may also choose to become strikingly and mind-bendingly visible. One of the scenes in this novella that gave me goosebumps all over, is when the alien Tura first reveals herself, in her "true" form, to Bréone in the garden at Irislands. Tobler perfectly captures Bréone's sense of mixed dread and amazement and sheer awe as a layer of reality is pulled back, revealing the truth beneath.

The Necessity of Stars is also delicately drawn love story, about the deep and life-affirming friendship and romance between Bréone and Delphine. It's a relationship that is crucial to Bréone and a relationship that she is loath to lose or imperil, not least because it took so long for her to grasp how significant this relationship is to both her and to Delphine.
"For a long while, I believed I loved her only in my dreams and not in the waking world...Humans are often foolish, when it comes to squandering a heart, or a planet."
This is also an ecological science fiction story, set in a (maybe not too distant) future where our world has been ravaged and forever altered by climate change, and where much has been, and continues to be, lost. Bréone lives with that sense of loss, with the knowledge of the fragility of the world and the fragility of life, as an ever-present specter.
That sense of fragility and loss--past, present, and future--is also entwined with another story thread, because The Necessity of Stars is also a poignant story about aging. Tobler delves deep into the fears that haunt many of us as we age: that our bodies will, and do, fail and falter; and worse, that our minds might fail us too, that we will lose the grip on our own thoughts, that we will lose our memories, and maybe, ultimately, even lose our own Selves.
The power of memories, and Bréone's fear of losing her memories, losing her mental capacity, losing the life she loves, losing her self, losing everything (including Delphine), is a crucial part of the book and play a crucial part in the choices Bréone ultimately makes about her relationship with the alien Tura.
"Memory is a form of fiction--a story that keeps the days threaded together in proper order. Experts in memory function say your first memory probably never happened, that it is a fiction you've told yourself so many times you've simply come to believe it as truth.

The first thing I remember in my life is this: I am standing in a pond, the water gathered around my waist, the lily stems tickling my legs."

This memory, of Bréone in a pond at night with the mud beneath her feet, the lilies around her legs, and the night sky above, is one that Bréone returns to again and again, and the truth of what happened there is intricately connected to the present.

In short, The Necessity of Stars is a mind-bending, dizzying tale of what happens in the shadows beneath the trees in a garden when the alien Tura meets the human Bréone. Throughout the novella,Tobler’s prose gleams and shimmers like the inside of a mussel shell, pearlescent and beguiling, lustrous with insight and imagination. 
Buy The Necessity of Stars through the Neon Hemlock Kickstarter. 

Novella cover art by Marcela Bolívar; Design by Dave Ring


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