A Spark of White Fire is an example of political intrigue done right in YA, and one of the best YA books set in space I’ve ever read. It’s the first book in The Celestial Trilogy.
I don’t know if it’s right to call A Spark of White Fire “science fiction”. This Mahabharata retelling is a genre-bending gem – which isn’t as common as it should be in YA – because it’s set in space, but it reads like a high fantasy novel.
There are gods, talking spaceships that are just the space version of fantasy talking dragons, a beautiful city floating near a nebula, magical weapons blessed by the gods, and people fighting over a throne. A Spark of White Fire doesn’t even try to feel like a sci-fi novel; the space setting is just there for the aesthetics. And you know what? The descriptions in this book are beautiful and the aesthetic was worth every time the thought of people fighting with bows and arrows in space broke my suspension of disbelief.
A Spark of White Fire follows lost princess Esmae, who is now ready to reveal her identity and fight for Titania, the sentient, unbeatable spaceship blessed by the gods. Winning Titania will help her win back Kali’s throne, which was stolen from her brother Alexi by their uncle Elvar and his adopted son Max.
It’s a story about a torn family and complicated loyalties, and I loved how it played out – so much that I didn’t mind that some parts of it were predictable, because Esmae’s character arc was surprisingly subversive and went exactly in the direction I wanted it to go.
One thing I don’t like about political intrigue in YA is that there’s often a good side and a bad side – sometimes the side you thought was the good one turns out to be the bad one, but that’s as far as plot twists usually go. Here, there’s not a “good” side, and if you can argue one is better than the other, you can’t ignore the fact that, in some way, everyone is wrong and has been wronged. I love complex political situations and I love competent heroines who know how to exploit them (…even if sometimes they fail).
Another thing I really appreciated was the way in which the focus switched from “let’s take the throne back to the rightful owner” – which is a trope I hate, especially when the supposedly right person is a teenager – to “let’s prevent a war, we don’t want millions to die because you hate your cousin”.
And preventing wars is more difficult than starting them. Sometimes, the hate you feel for your cousin is more dangerous than the cousin himself.
This book wasn’t flawless – I really didn’t need the step-cousin romance, at least there wasn’t a lot of it – but it surprised me just how much I enjoyed it. I didn’t think I would ever love a story about a lost princess in space, but this book did something new with this trope.
Another thing I could have done without was Esmae’s comment that people who don’t date are afraid of happiness – which was especially surprising because she had just said that dating wasn’t a priority for her, but of course she ends up falling for a boy a few chapters later.
(At least there’s a side character who is a girl who like girls and I love her.)
My rating: ★★★★½