Secrets of the Starcrossed, which I received for review from NetGalley, is the first book in the Once and Future Queen series by Clara O’Connor. The novel is set in Londinium, in an alternate history in which the Roman Empire never fell and exists in an uneasy relationship with Celtic tribes beyond its walls. Primarily a fantasy romance, it also features dystopian (most empires are), futuristic, and elemental magic elements. Cassandra, the cosseted daughter of a wealthy merchant, has been matched with Marcus, son of one of the city’s most powerful men. But after she connects with Devyn, a mysterious classmate with an uncanny ability to remain below the radar, she discovers truths about her Celtic past and future in the empire that change her forever.
Cassandra is the novel’s first person narrator, and her relationships with Devyn and Marcus drive the novel’s forward momentum. Her narrative is angsty and can feel excessively drawn out, especially when the novel’s concept offers so many other intriguing plot possibilities. At times, it can feel like O’Connor does not take full advantage of these possibilities, with the story going in circles rather than spiraling outward, though the plot does pick up in the final third, ending with quite the cliffhanger. In addition, readers versed in Roman and British history may especially enjoy the ways O’Connor weaves in and plays with that history.
What I found especially compelling and relevant is the novel’s chilling portrait of how a surveillance state justifies itself to itself and its citizens: entertainment, convenience, and even moral uprightness, e.g. if you have nothing to hide, then why do you want privacy? If you have nothing to hide, why would surveillance trouble you? The importance of the scenarios the novel raises and their potential for discussion about timely questions ultimately outweigh, for me, some of its structural weaknesses. I found this an interesting novel to think with.