It Takes Death to Reach a Star by Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington. My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
“‘Don’t throw your life away, Mila. We have one life to live, one life to give in the service of the Lightbringer. Use yours to make a difference.’
‘Very poetic Bilgi, but–’
The old man gently touches my arm–an uncharacteristic gesture for him. ‘Just do something that matters with the time you’ve been given, Mila.'”
Interesting book to end the summer on. Before I get into my thoughts, let’s take a minute and discuss what this story is actually about.
The book opens and we are introduced to Etyom, a landscape divided into different groups with each group’s societal standing pertaining to their level of evolution: the Robusts (who are the closest to present-day humans), the Graciles (the highest on the evolutionary ladder), and the Rippers (who are lowest on the ladder). There’s also a group following a tyrant named Kapka, and they are known as Musuls. We are introduced to Mila, a Robust who explains about how a third World War and a following outbreak of a new strain of the Black Death forced survivors to migrate to Etyom. When Mila’s home is threatened by soldiers working for Kapka, she is forced to leave on a dangerous job that pulls her away from home. Meanwhile, a young Gracile named Demitri is dealing with hearing voices and tries to hide his condition with a powerful drug known as DBS, knowing that if his condition is discovered he will be killed. When his dealer dies, he is forced to try to find more of it on his own, not realizing that this particular errand will end up thrusting both him and Mila into the escalating war between the races. As Etyom continues to be targeted by the leader of the Graciles, Mila and Demitri will have to put their differences aside and work together in the hopes of stopping him before Etyom and its inhabitants are destroyed.
All right – time to dive in. Let’s start this off by discussing how Jones and Worthington set up the story’s structure, as it’ll help lay the groundwork for the characters. The story is told mainly from the perspectives of Mila and Demitri, with Demitri’s sections occasionally being followed by the perspective of Vedmak (the voice in his head). I really enjoy how Jones and Worthington establish all three characters through these narrative voices. It makes the story a lot stronger by giving the reader a closer look into Mila and Demitri’s lives in this world and helps with increasing the tension as the story reaches its climax. Vedmak’s sections, though few and far between, are particularly gripping because they further help to show just how much power he has over Demitri. This especially works in the book’s favor at the end of the story. Seeing Demitri being completely taken over by Vedmak – and the book ending on that note – had me stunned. Jones and Worthington have left a clear opening for a sequel and, if it happens, I can already see the potential with Vedmak currently in control of Demitri’s body. I’ll talk more about Vedmak as a character in a bit.
An essential element to any story is the characters the authors introduce, because they help the reader to care about what happens in the story. We are first introduced to Mila, one of the two main protagonists of this story. She is a young woman working for the resistance party against the Creed. She comes off as kind of rough around the edges at first, but I feel that that’s understandable given the world she lives in. It took me some time to warm up to her, but I really started to like her when, early on in the story, she feels compelled to help two complete strangers in trouble with Kapka’s followers. That particular situation showed great personal integrity and made her easy to root for. I like that she’s more than able to fend for herself and how she’s not afraid to stand up for herself. This is shown early on in the story when Kapka’s men infiltrate the bar she works for and threaten her and her boss, Clief. I enjoyed seeing her beat the daylights out of the two thugs after they insulted her. Also, she and Clief dumping Kapka’s men on the street with signs labeling them “Violent Musuls” was too good not to mention – the image of the two criminals completely beaten and dumped out into the cold got a pretty loud chuckle out of me! I think I knew then that I wouldn’t mind her narrating some of the story and, for me, liking the person narrating is crucial to my enjoyment of a story. Often, if I don’t like the person narrating, I don’t enjoy seeing them in the story, which is why it’s important that I like Mila.
“I swing my feet over the edge of the cot and lower my head to whisper a short chain of rehearsed words. The Graciles abandoned faith long ago, but for us–for me–the power it has to sustain, to motivate, to generate hope, is more powerful than the evils at my door.”
In terms of Mila’s relationships with other characters, I really like how she gets along with her mentor Bilgi. Their relationship comes off as really sweet and almost familial in a way. I loved the first interaction we see between them in the book, because the way it’s set up is pretty funny as well. At that point, we don’t know Bilgi is Mila’s mentor and that he’s teaching her to fight, so the sudden tonal shift after they were sparring, with Bilgi asking her if she wanted coffee, had me sputtering with laughter. Later on, I admit, I was surprised to see Bilgi as a part of the resistance against the Gracile Leader, but at the same time, it was awesome seeing him fight alongside Mila to save Etyom, because it just drove home how much he cares about her and wants to help her.
I also liked her relationship with Faruq, one of the innocents she’d tried to help save from Kapka’s men that I mentioned. I thought it was nice that they developed a friendship after Mila first met him. He was completely dedicated to doing something good for her in return, and it just gave me a good feeling knowing that he wanted to be there for her.
And finally, her relationship with Demitri, which is actually the strongest relationship she has in the book. I enjoyed seeing Mila grow to like the rogue Gracile, even if she regarded him with suspicion and annoyance at first. I particularly enjoyed when she was able to put it together that Demitri was a Gracile, but still cared about him even when she felt that she wasn’t supposed to. It made their friendship all the sweeter when it came to that point, and I like that Mila showed concern for him at the end of the story when Vedmak took over.
Now I should talk about Demitri. I actually like his sections a bit more than Mila’s, mainly because I like the setup of his character a little more. I love the idea of him being haunted by this voice in his head and the stakes that creates for him. It was interesting watching him try to cope with Vedmak’s incessant insults and nagging. I like that it gave Demitri clear inner conflict that never felt forced or manipulative. He’s just trying to live his life, but Vedmak won’t leave him alone. It made me feel for him even when I didn’t know much about him and I really wanted to see him show that he was more than what Vedmak believed him to be.
“The walk is long and monotonous. The worst kind of walk for me. Too much time to think. Too much time for Vedmak to berate me–and berate me he does. A stream of insults and digs rattles around inside my head. I should be used to this, but he knows just how to gouge the deepest wounds. None more so than my loneliness.”
That said, there is one thing about Demitri’s character that I can’t overlook. When he’s introduced in the story, he is doing something that I was pretty shocked got past editing, even for a story aimed at adults. Why is our introduction to Demitri a scenario of him harming himself, and in a pretty graphic manner to boot? On top of that, it’s just that one time in the beginning and he doesn’t do it again for the rest of the book. It may have been used to introduce Vedmak, but I think the decision to introduce both characters that way was a mistake. I hate to make that claim, because otherwise I have no problems with Demitri at all, but I would just be worried about a reader who may have a personal issue with seeing that. You have to be extremely careful with sensitive topics like that, because they could be upsetting for someone who has struggled with the harmful behavior you’re depicting. The only way I could possibly see it work in the story’s favor is if the authors were trying to say something specifically about self-harm. But because we don’t see Demitri doing something like examining scars from past injuries, or even reflecting on the action when he does it the one time, there’s no commentary. Again, I have no problem with anything else about Demitri as a character – I just needed to address this issue before moving on with the rest of the review.
And because I’m talking about Demitri, I need to discuss Vedmak before I dive into some of the relationships Demitri has. Like I said, we’re introduced to Vedmak along with Demitri and Vedmak is mocking him. In the beginning, I honestly thought that Demitri was just mentally ill and Vedmak was the manifestation of his own personal insecurities. I love that Jones and Worthington completely proved me wrong by introducing Vedmak’s own point of view in the story. When it hit me that Demitri wasn’t suffering from schizophrenia, I was floored. It was both awesome and incredibly disturbing to see this terrible being talk about taking over Demitri’s body and using it for his own twisted ends. I am also left wondering what exactly Vedmak is. While we do get a reason Demitri hears him, where does he come from? What’s his story? What is his ultimate goal in taking over Demitri’s body? Why does he hate Demitri so much? And finally, what will it take to stop him before even more innocent people get injured or killed? These are the questions that I can see being explored with a sequel and, again, I hope it’s something the authors are planning on pursuing.
“But my time is not yet. I must sit in the dark, between worlds, in a limbo that pulls me apart. Still, like a cancer, I grow stronger inside this pathetic Gracile. Soon I will consume him. Now his consciousness wakes. For now, I must slink back to the anguish inside. My own personal hell. But it won’t be long. Fear weakens him and nourishes me. If you’re afraid of wolves, you shouldn’t go into the woods.
And you, little puppet, are deep in the woods.”
In terms of some of the other characters, I liked Demitri’s relationship with Faruq’s sister Husniya. I thought it was nice that he didn’t leave her after witnessing her get caught in the middle of an attack arranged by the Leader’s Creed army. I like the parallel between the voice she hears in her head and that of Vedmak and how it led Demitri to look for the reason he hears the voice. I love how protective Demitri is of her and will do anything to reunite her with her brother. And I absolutely adore how she wants Demitri to be safe and is there for him when he desperately needs someone after the murder of his brother.
I should wrap this character section up by discussing the main antagonist of the story. Now, the book’s not exactly clear in the beginning about the Leader being the big bad, mainly because of the introduction of Kapka. That being said, I actually really liked the scene with Kapka being confronted by the Leader in the dungeon, because it outed him as the true main antagonist. I love the idea of a tyrant like Kapka being completely at the mercy of someone as imposing as the Leader. It’s also an interesting twist in events because, up until that point, he didn’t seem as bad as Kapka. Sure, there are small hints of it (such as when Demitri mentions that he’s kind of intimidated by the man), but it’s mainly left in the background until that point.
Originally, I was planning on pointing out how the Leader being the main antagonist kind of came out of left field but – thinking about it now – not showing him in detail up until the end establishes a sort of Big Brother-like setup, where the problem in the story is much bigger than the main characters and the world they inhabit and they have to work a bit harder to overcome whatever they face. I like that the particular setup used allows Mila and Demitri to have that one final confrontation with him, and I love that Mila and Demitri both contributed to stopping the Leader, instead of Demitri just saving Mila or Mila saving Demitri. It really felt like they were equally important and, considering that it can be difficult to handle two main characters and their individual arcs, I think Jones and Worthington did a great job showing that they were on the same level.
“‘You still draw breath because I allow it, and you will do what I pay you for. The bombings are no longer enough, and I will not have my grand design corrupted by Opor’s meddling or your feeble-minded incompetence.'”
There’s one more thing I want to talk about before I try to wrap this up. One thing that I usually don’t consider is illustrations or maps that may be put in books, because I usually try to just focus on the story. But I do want to give the illustrations used in the book mention. They are depictions of the characters at the beginning of their respective sections. I like that Jones and Worthington made it clear what perspectives there were going to be by placing the images right before the chapter with the pertaining character opened. It helped to follow which character was narrating and made it easier to appreciate the way the story is structured.
The map was also a nice addition. I usually tend to skim over maps when I’m starting a book, but I like to go back after I’m done with the story to see how it all fits together with the map given. While the map Jones and Worthington have created is small, it does help to understand where everything in the story is located and how Etyom is structured geographically. I felt that it was a nice thing to have given the world that is set up.
In the end, I actually enjoyed this story a lot more than I was expecting to. I think Jones and Worthington have created a wonderfully unique addition to the science fiction genre, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a story with rich world building, endearing characters, and an engaging story that you won’t want to end, even after the last page is turned.