Catching Stars by Cayla Keenan | a phenomenal fantasy debut

OVERALL: ★★★★/5

(Goodreads summary here.)

When I opened up my May OwlCrate and saw this book, I wasn’t really sure what to think. I tend to fall into the unfortunate yet typical pattern of really only reading popular books from big-name publishers. I want to be better about it and support indie publishers, but I also want to be reading all the books I see everyone else talking about. This was the perfect book to convince me to get over my publishing elitism.

Catching Stars is everything I love about magic-based fantasy. There’s action and emotional conflict, opposing beliefs and values, and a unique yet ever-familiar hierarchy of magical elite. While I do wish there was a bit more explanation of the magic system as a whole (which is just a result of my love of world-building), there was never a point where I was confused about what was happening. While not all-encompassing, the explanations of the magic system are enough to explain what you need to know. I loved the conflict of Jayin attempting to “escape” the clutches of the palace, yearning for a freedom she wasn’t finding as a member of the magical court. Although I was sometimes annoyed about the fact that she is the only witch with her powers because I often find the trope overused and overdone, Jayin was so calm and generally humble about it that it didn’t bother me the way it could have.

I did have some issues early on with the pacing of the book, which is one of the main reasons it wasn’t a 5-star read for me. The beginning felt too full of exposition to really suck me into the story from the get-go. The shift from plot to exposition back to plot felt too abrupt and structured for my taste. As much as I love learning about the world, I enjoy having it slipped into the action rather than have a paragraph of plot then one of explanation then one of plot, which is what this book did early on. Once all the main points were established, though, it fell into a much more natural style that I really did like.

I also seemed to catch more typos than I usually do, but I also tend to see them more than the average reader because I tend to have an eye for editing errors. There was one glaring mistake in particular that really bugged me. Maddix intentionally chooses not to learn Jayin’s name until about a quarter of the way through the book, so in all his chapters she is referred to as “the witch” or some other variation. However, there is one slip where he refers to Jayin by her name in the narration. I thought I had just forgotten the moment when he asked her name, so I didn’t overthing it in the moment. Except for the fact that not 3 paragraphs later, on the same page, Maddix asks Jayin her name. Like, the author went through all this effort to make sure Jayin’s name isn’t used from Maddix’s perspective and then slips up when it is most obvious. It seems like a minor grievance, but it’s just such an awful place to have a mistake because it becomes practically impossible not to notice it.

Thankfully, those are really the only two issues I had with the novel. I adored the candid writing style that let you know what the characters were thinking and what they were doing in equal measure. It’s a thought- and emotion-driven read just as much as it is an action-driven one, which I really appreciate. The characters learned, and grew, and changed with a depth and credibility that I think is can sometimes be hard to find in fantasy novels with similar premises. While I predicted one of the twists at the end to a degree, the other completely through me for a loop, which was really awesome since I was only expecting one plot twist. And while it is one of those ones where you’re like, “Ugh, of course this happened to add extra drama,” to me, it didn’t feel overdone. It still felt like natural and not like it was trying too hard to shock you.

As for the characters, I think Jayin may be one of my new favorite fantasy heroines. She is powerful but never falls into the trap of being overwhelmed or overambitious about that fact. For as much as she tries to act like a loner, Jayin recognizes that she’s really not. She could easily be a character who pushes everyone away. Instead, she learns to let them in. For as much as Maddix seems to think she’s dark and brooding, the reader knows for a fact that’s false.

Similarly, Maddix is exactly the kind of softy who pretends he’s fierce that I love. Sure, his beliefs are clouded by revenge and subtle brainwashing, but he eventually learns to see and judge for himself. Most importantly, it’s not an instantaneous shift. One of my biggest pet peeves with this type of character is when they just decide out of nowhere to drop their prejudices (*cough Inan cough*). Maddix is also the type of character who is hell-bent on a perverted sort of justice, which I just generally really love. And while he is still determined to set things right in some way, he also comes to realize that it’s not the most important thing in the world. Really, Maddix is just A+ in the character development department. My singular qualm is that Jayin calls him by his last name for half the novel, which is fine from a story-telling perspective, except for the fact that his last name is Kell, and I kept picturing Kell Maresh from A Darker Shade of Magic in his place. Like, I understand that VE Schwab doesn’t have a monopoly on the name Kell, but she does in my heart because of how much I love that series. Again, it’s just a small thing and I got over it ones Jayin switches to calling him Maddix, but it bothered me for a bit.

I’m hesitant to compare this book to Children of Blood and Bone, but the dynamics between main characters are very similar. However, Catching Stars does everything I was looking for Children of Blood and Bone to do in terms of the character development of the prejudiced character. Where Inan just throws his beliefs to the wind once he meets Zelie, we get to see Maddix humanize Jayin the more they are around each other. It’s really a phenomenal example of a good enemies-to-friends (maybe to lovers) plotline. That was another thing that I appreciated about what Keenan did in this novel: Maddix and Jayin are never truly romantically involved. Yes, there are hints of feelings on both of their parts, but they never admit them to one another. It’s the best kind of slow burn, in my opinion (ironically, I found it very similar to the dynamic between Kell and Lila in ADSOM, which I loved). I am fairly certain there will be a sequel because of the way the book ends, and I can’t wait to see if this slow burn ends up actually burning.

Overall, I was wildly impressed with and surprised by Catching Stars. It’s a fantastic debut that has everything you could possibly want in a fantasy novel. It has definitely swayed me towards picking up more lesser-known books, authors, and publishers.

If you’ve read Catching Stars, what did you think (especially people who got it in their OwlCrate!)? Anyone have good indie authors and publishers they recommend? Please send them my way!

Keep reading,

Francesca M. Healy (1)

4 thoughts on “Catching Stars by Cayla Keenan | a phenomenal fantasy debut

  1. Ohhh this sounds really good thanks for sharing your review of it!

    And ahhh I get you on that particular typo though! There was a book by one of my fave authors, a prequel of sorts for a character and she was using her original (fake) name and the narrative was building up to woo yeah its that character from that previous book and here’s her choosing her new name that you already knew… but a typo about 3/4 through the book inserted that name too soon and it was headbangingly unfortunate.

    Liked by 1 person

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