The Actual Star by Monica Byrne

A black and gold swirl centers on a pinpoint of a star. Two blue bands stripe the book vertically, while the text appears in orange horizontal bars.

By Sahana C.

It’s hard to find a good place to start with this book, so I’ll start at the end, in the year 3012. Society is different, and so are the people as the result of hundreds of years of war and compromise and cultural evolution. As a species, we are a genderless and raceless band of nomads, with a blatant disdain for those who settle down in nuclear family units.  

So yeah, there’s a lot going on. The above phrasing makes it seems starkly unnatural, but somehow, Monica Byrne’s weaving together of three different stories across time makes the future version of us feel tangible. Despite all of the modifications and the general foreignness of the shape of this future society, the basics of humanity remain the same. We are emotional and community oriented, no matter when we are in history. We follow patterns that remain, no matter how far we try to stray outside the bounds of history.  

The ripple effects from past to present to future were incredible. Seeing names and places that were mentioned briefly in the past become more important in the future was almost an exciting reward for paying close attention through the timelines. And this book does reward close attention. It is obvious that Byrne put immense time and research into all aspects of the novel, going from the Maya, to modern Belize, to what made sense for the future based on the results of the events she described in the first two timelines. Most importantly, the story of the Hero Twins, some of the most important figures in the Maya mythos, is described and adapted in such a faithful light that Byrne has room to play with the elements of the mythology.  

The story of the Hero Twins is one that Byrne explains in the novel, but, like the rest of Maya mythology, it is complex and bears repeating. The Hero Twins were the central characters of one of the oldest preserved Maya works, the Maya equivalent of the Epic of Gilgamesh, with just as much adventure. They were often portrayed as complementary forces, the sky and the earth, the sun and the moon, the masculine and feminine, life and death. All in all, the Hero Twins were born to represent the two sides of a single entity. The shortest way to explain their greatest triumph is that they defeated the lords of Xibalba, the Maya equivalent of the realm of the dead, in a ball game, essentially representing that together, they had conquered death and diminished the power of all Xibalba. 

In the first of the three timelines in the novel, the year 1012, we are introduced to Ixul and Ajul through the point of view of their little sister, Ket. They are royalty and are said to be the reincarnation of the Hero Twins, with all the strength, power, and greatness that entails. The second timeline in 2012 follows Leah, a nineteen-year-old half Maya girl from Minnesota who goes to Belize to reconnect with her heritage. While she is there, she explores sacred caves and meets Javier and Xander, another set of twins, who work as tour guides. Business is booming, because in 2012, at the end of one Maya calendar, the Western world had decided the world was going to end. And then, in 3012, we follow Niloux, someone who is speaking out about the way society has evolved. She is embroiled in debate about the very nature and purpose of humanity, a thousand years after the change in the Maya cycle.  

Each of these timelines finds the characters on the precipice of a great and life altering change. The story is a blend of mythology, history, and sci-fi, and speaks, ultimately, to the way we use history to justify the present, and the way that our understanding of the past informs our future, no matter what we do.  

The Tor.com review called the novel, “one of the most effective examples of worldbuilding you’re likely to see on a page this year,” and I have to agree. Despite being longer than 600 pages, it’s somehow still a fast read. It’s a hefty book that tries to cover a lot, and sometimes just doesn’t have the space to explore all of the various threads it brings up, but when Byrne is allowed to go into detail on a subject, she does not miss.   

The Actual Star is available in print.  

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.

Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola

Two figures poised to kiss are color blocked in bold color of turquoise, red, and yellow.

by Sahana C.

Some really popular retellings of myths are going around now: The Song of Achilles, Circe, and The Women of Troy, to name a few. But all three have one thing in common: they center Greek and Roman mythology. The world of myth is much more vast than Greek and Roman mythology, and Bolu Babalola weaves her magic around folktales from West Africa, the Middle East, and even China, alongside Greek and Roman myths that she writes through a more diverse slant. She brings these often untold tales to the forefront with her compilation of short stories, Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold.  

More than just retellings of these myths, however, Babalola brings each story fully into the modern world. Instead of Scheherazade being a trapped princess, she’s a journalist managing some dangerous new sources. Psyche works for Eros’s mother in a fiercely corporate world that she wants to break free from. This, too, is a break from tradition among popular retellings today, and it adds to the timeless nature of the stories by showing just how universal each love story really is.  

The stories are not too long, with just enough context and world building in each to make readers fall firmly in love with the world, to build a new universe around these characters, and make them fall in love with each other. These stories don’t necessarily keep all the magic and mythic details consistent, but the essence of the myth, what it would mean in the modern context, remains the same. Instead of magic crocodile skins that cause them strife in their personal lives, for example, characters have vitiligo, a skin condition that they have to learn to love about themselves.  

Personally, Nefertiti’s story, Zhinu’s, and Thisbe’s have been at the forefront of my mind since reading, each taking the original myth and twisting it into something lovely and appropriate for a modern age, while retaining a timeless quality. The stories revolve around love; love and POC joy are centered with every character. In the ordinarily Eurocentric realm of mythology, Love in Color is the best of romance: poignant, beautiful, complex in plot but simple enough to convey its message. 

I would lean towards reading up about each myth before reading the stories, however. The myths that I had context for, I enjoyed more upon a first read than the others, but after doing some research on the other stories, I went back and enjoyed the less familiar stories just as much on a reread.  

The publisher review for the anthology notes the diversity of the source material, saying, “Focusing on the magical folktales of West Africa, Babalola also reimagines Greek myths, ancient legends from the Middle East, and stories from long-erased places. With an eye towards decolonizing tropes inherent in our favorite tales of love, Babalola has created captivating stories that traverse across perspectives, continents, and genres.” 

Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola is available in print

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.

The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith

The book cover depicts someone tearing through the pages of a book as if through a curtain, with a dark abyss behind and a bare arm reaching from inside the book.

By Eliana H.

“Hell is a series of hallways.” I think I can believe that. In The Library of the Unwritten, author A.J. Hackwith imagines not only Hell, but a variety of realms of the afterlife, down to the bureaucracy that governs them.

Claire Hadley has been Hell’s Librarian for a few decades now. She runs the Unwritten Wing, home to all of the stories that authors never actually wrote. Brevity, Claire’s assistant, is a former muse, and the two are joined by a demon, Leto, as they set off to retrieve a character who has escaped from his book and made his way to earth to seek his author. As they are ready to return to the Library, an angel shows up, expecting them to have a completely different book – the Devil’s Bible. 

Before they know it, Claire, Brevity, Leto, and Hero find themselves on an adventure to try to avert war between Heaven and Hell. They know such a battle would spell disaster for the humans who would be caught in the middle. In the end, all of the library’s resources will be needed to defend against those who would harm it. 

Hackwith does a beautiful job describing the worlds they travel through as we learn more about the intriguing cast of characters, none of whom are quite what they seem. She also demonstrates the politics of the different domains. 

This book was refreshing in the way it tied different beliefs and mythologies into an original premise with unique characters. I was captivated throughout. The journal entry or two from librarians through the ages beginning each chapter, which hinted at some of the challenges they faced in previous eras, were a helpful touch. This is the first book in a new series, so I look forward to learning more about the past – both Claire’s and the library’s – as well as further adventures to come.

The Library of the Unwritten is available from HCLS in print and also as an eaudiobook through OverDrive/Libby.

Eliana is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She loves reading, even if she’s slow at it, and especially enjoys helping people find books that make them light up. She also loves being outside and spending time with friends and family (when it’s safe).