Two Great Minds: A Joint Review of Defy The Stars
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
April 4th 2017
There’s nothing quite like falling headlong into an author’s entire catalogue. I should know. I’m deep in a Claudia Gray haze these days, and I’m still not sure how that happened. Scratch that. I picked up Lost Stars, Gray’s Star Wars novel, on the intense recommendation of artist and friend Wendy Xu. It was a good decision and one that’s led me to read through Gray’s backlist and her newest novel Defy the Stars.
In Defy the Stars, we meet Noemi Vidal, a fighter pilot for her planet Genesis in its war against Earth’s invasion of their galaxy. Earth sends a host of robots, created by Burton Mansfield, to fight in the war, and Abel is Mansfield’s ultimate creation, though he has been trapped on a ship for several years. When Noemi and Abel meet, the deal they strike leads them across several planets and into truths they must grapple with as they fight to survive. Wendy and I had more than passing thoughts on the book. What better way to discuss than a joint review?
Wendy Xu: How did you feel after reading the book?
Angel Cruz: I felt exhausted in a good way. Claudia Gray is really good at keeping hope at the heart of her books, and I thought Defy the Stars had a more satisfying ending in that sense.
Here’s where I admit that I didn’t actually connect Lost Stars’ Claudia Gray to Defy the Stars’ Claudia Gray, and that’s why I didn’t pick up DtS sooner. That said, I only read Lost Stars back in February, and after that, I was afraid to pick up another Gray novel, because I wasn’t sure if I would ever love anything else as much. Defy the Stars surprised me that way, though, I think the reasons I love it are different.
Noemi was strangely similar to me, and I was engaged in her narrative almost immediately. Gray writes her characters with their emotional walls present and visible from the beginning, and I felt like I knew Noemi within the first chapter. That turned out to be especially great because so much of the novel revolves around only Noemi and Abel, and their personal stakes. I was a little less sure of Abel at the start, so it was nice to feel myself becoming more engaged with him as Noemi did.
Wendy: I also loved Noemi and was engaged immediately! I feel like while the trope of the angry guarded girl in YA is somewhat a thing, she took Noemi to a really nuanced level. We see how the church has influenced her upbringing, and how her entire upbringing was centered around guilt and trying to find a grace she felt she lacked.
I think she did a really good job with the religious aspects. It’s very rare to see a fantasy/scifi YA book that has a religious protagonist who struggles with their beliefs, like it’s either “the gods are real” or “look, a temple on a hill that’s dedicated to the sea god…I don’t really go there,” if that makes sense.
Angel: Yes, I agree! I’m personally religious, and it was surprising to see a Catholic character who has a tense connection to her religion. I’ve always believed that part of practicing a religion is questioning it and interrogating your own thoughts on it, and Noemi definitely did that throughout the book.
Wendy: For sure. I’m not really religious, but it’s something I’ve also struggled with on and off for my life since I was a teen; finding that greater meaning. I still struggle with it.
Did you think it was an accurate portrayal of catholicism or how you might struggle with it?
Angel: I definitely thought so. Like Noemi, my parents are devout, and while I’ve never doubted my faith, I’ve definitely questioned it the way she did. There have been times where I wondered about how it would fit with my life and the things I know to be true, so she was really relatable. Do you think we got to a place in this book where she’s come to a better understanding of her perspective on religion, or is that something you think might come into play in the next novel?
Wendy: I think she—Noemi—is getting there, but I’m sure in the next book there’s going to be even more questioning. This one laid the groundwork that’s the basis of a lot of AI narrative: does the machine have a heart/feelings/consciousness/soul? There’s a lot of potential for it to get even more philosophical.
Angel: And so we come to Abel! When you first heard about this book and Abel, what were you expecting or hoping for in the story?
Wendy: So when I first looked at this book, I thought it was going to be a standard AI love story. I didn’t really have any kind of expectations for Abel. I thought he might be just a standard YA love interest but as a robot (which I’m here for anyway!). He turned out to be so compelling, and the dynamic between him and Noemi was super believable. And you know how much I love a good hate-mance.
Angel: I am also a big fan of hate-mances, and it definitely warmed my heart to see their relationship unfold that way.
Do you think it would have meant less if they had liked each other right away? Of course, they’re on separate sides, but this wouldn’t be the first time a YA book’s created a connection between characters who are taught to hate each other. What do you think the hate-mance adds to their dynamic?
Wendy: It immediately adds a tension that sets the reader up to be like “ohohohO” (I mean, maybe that’s just me), but it’s so satisfying to have to read through and see how these characters’ regard for each other change, going from opposing ideologies to….loooooove. It definitely makes you work for the romance more, and it’s a slow, satisfying burn. I like media that has me screaming JUST KISS ALREADY, but not giving it until nearly the end.
I really loved seeing the two of them interact with other characters both individually and together. Seeing that reinforced their bond for me, because you start to see how they fit together and what they bring to each other’s lives
Wendy: Also somewhat off-topic: it really meant a lot to me to see Noemi allowed to be angry. Even if it’s written by a white woman, a well-done and complex woman of color (WOC) is hard to come by in media. I felt like the author left her alone, in some ways, and didn’t try to infer anything about her heritage (it worked for me because she was literally born on another planet into a well-established planetary culture that’s different from Earth’s).
Angel: I appreciated the straightforward way Gray describes her heritage.
Wendy: Yes, I do too. It wasn’t try hard.
Angel: I was nervous I was gonna see those food-type descriptions, à la “coffee-coloured skin,” you know? And it was so nice to realize that wasn’t gonna happen.
Wendy: YES. Speaking of, did you feel like Abel could only work if he was shaped like a white dude?
Angel: I think that Gray was making a deliberate choice to harken back to imperialism and colonialist attitudes, and the reasons for Abel’s existence reinforce those attitudes. At the very least, the way she handled those revelations didn’t feel titillating. They were horrifying, and rightly so, and Gray doesn’t excuse those reasons. She examines them and deconstructs them in a really interesting manner.
Wendy: Right. Like specifically, Burton Mansfield is kind of the epitome of privileged entitled white dude attitude.
Angel: There was this surety to Abel that I couldn’t identify with. He always seemed sure in Mansfield and what he knew of his creator. Whereas with Noemi, everything in her life is up in the air, almost literally. And she reacts accordingly. You could see that attitude in her first encounter with Abel; she’s ready to fight, ready to prove herself beyond measure, and it raises the tension between them. Both Noemi and Abel feel beholden to others, and it was really interesting to see that shift as they got closer to one another.
Wendy: Ah, that’s a really interesting point. I think in Noemi’s case though, she’s also driven by a kind of certainty. The knowledge that she’s gonna die and that before she goes she’s going to do everything she can to save her world. But that changes as soon as they figure out there’s an alternate. Abel’s own certainty changes when Mansfield turns out to be a monster.
Angel: I liked the way they both responded to change. They’re resilient and that was something I definitely love seeing in YA.
Wendy: I want to backtrack a little bit and talk about how effective this is as a new work in the AI literary canon. I would argue that most AI narratives shy away from faith. It’s told from an entirely secular perspective. The robots in Westworld have consciousness, and it’s a heavily scientific explanation. Same with films like Bladerunner and comics like Chobits, which go towards the philosophical, but they never step over into the religious aspect
So the way Defy the Stars deals with consciousness, the humbleness to which it admits that we can’t actually explain how consciousness truly is, even when we as human beings build it ourselves, I think that’s something unusual and pretty cool.
Angel: These are excellent points. It does sometimes feel like we are more comfortable talking about philosophy than religion in our stories.
Wendy: Absolutely, unless it’s like, fantasy religion where the gods are undisputedly real and walk within the world.
Angel: But even then, sometimes it feels like the gods serve humanity, in that they are easy to understand and conceptualize.
Angel: I haven’t read a YA novel that has tangled with the idea that we might not understand consciousness the way Defy the Stars does. And it’s interesting to think about what that says in terms of our sense of humanity and connection to others.
Wendy: Did you notice how many of the robots built by Mansfield, the disposable ones, were coded as women or POC?
Angel: That made me so uncomfortable. The first one or two mentions, I was like “huh.” And then it started to become a pattern. Again, a deliberate one on Gray’s part that I recognized, and I understood the reason for the discomfort I was feeling.
Wendy: That Mansfield was probably carrying out his own biases, since he created all of them?
Angel: Yup. I thought it made a very effective point: that our biases are deeply intertwined with who we are, and they reveal themselves sometimes without our own awareness.
Wendy: There’s this really great moment where Abel realizes this. It’s such a small moment, but I loved it so much.
Like “Wait, I should do this…white people do this, right?”
Angel: Oh gosh, I forgot about that moment! I love the way Gray interacts and adds these in.
Wendy: Me too, it really adds to the worldbuilding.
Angel: Her previous novel, Lost Stars, had a lot of them too. I re-read parts of it recently, and the little callbacks that she adds to the shared history between her characters really deepens the narrative.
Wendy: [falls to the floor and cries] She’s so good at making people care.
Angel: What are your hopes for the next book?
Wendy: I hope they find each other again! [sobs] That they have the happy ending that some of her other characters could not.
Angel: I’d love to see Noemi taking on a bigger role in Genesis’ government.
Wendy: Yes, and I definitely want to see more of Genesis.
Angel: I think that’s my one complaint? We don’t see a lot of her world before she leaves it.
Wendy: I’m always most interested in worldbuilding, and the nostalgia and “old world” vibe that Genesis has, from the architecture and clothes and religious lifestyles. In a way it feels like Westworld, futuristic tech hidden among an old world. Not futuristic for that universe, but for us as readers.
Angel: Which feels right, because I feel like we’d still be peppering our future worlds with familiar things.
Wendy: I also liked future!Earth in this book for the same reason: the familiarity, the ramen shops, and fashion.
Angel: That kind of makes the conversation that the book brings more imperative, right? Because it’s still these worlds we recognize and could become.
Wendy: 100% and she makes it so clear that continuing political attitudes of conquest and entitlement could lead to war, regardless of how far we go in the universe.