NOTE: This review contains spoilers for Before the Broken Star. Please read at your discretion.
“Be calm. Be machine. Be indifferent, like time.”
This was a frustrating read for me. Featuring the alluring premise of a girl with a clockwork heart, Before the Broken Star is a great example of how elegant prose alone can’t carry a story.
Before the Broken Star is the tale of Everley Donovan, a girl living quite literally on borrowed time. When Everley was a child, her parents and siblings were brutally assassinated by Governor Killian Markham. Everley herself was stabbed in the heart, surviving only through the miraculous craftsmanship of a magical clock that keeps her alive. But every second Everley has is borrowed from Father Time, and she’s desperate for vengeance. When Markham announces his intentions to launch an expedition on the infamously wild island-turned-penal colony, Dagger Island, Everley seizes the chance to join.
The main problem with Before the Broken Star is that it has no grasp of how to build stakes. Throughout the story, readers are repeatedly told that Everley’s clock heart could give out at any moment and must be kept a secret. But, despite her precarious lifespan, Everley is set to inherit her uncle’s shop when he dies. Oh, this doesn’t make sense, does it? Whatever! Also, why does Everley’s clock heart have to be kept a secret at all (aside from the fact that it’s just weird)? The best reason I can fathom is that the clock heart has some connection to the deity Madrona, the worshippers of whom are brutally persecuted, but no direct link is made between Everley’s heart and Madrona. Plot holes like this reduce the urgency of the stakes, making it difficult to readers to care about Everley’s secret.
The stakes in Before the Broken Star are also undercut by poor pacing. If people discovering Everley’s clock heart has such dire (albeit undefined) consequences, why do both the love interest and the villain know about it before the halfway point of the book? And why does Jamison (the tepid love interest) not bat an eye when he discovers Everley’s clock heart? Because unintelligible, that’s why! Other stakes suffer at the cost of pacing, such as Markham’s secret identity and the fate of an entire world readers have A) heard about once in the context of a fairy tale and B) don’t give a fig about. If Markham’s secret had been revealed later and his history and world introduced earlier with more depth, it would make readers more invested in their respective fates. As it is, I struggled to care about Markham’s goal and the world that would suffer if he achieved it.
Sometimes a book can have a weak plot but be driven by compelling characters. Before the Broken Star has neither. As the main character, Everley is flat, defined chiefly by how cold she is to others. Her husband and love interest, Jamison, is blandly nice but has no defining attributes. The rest of the cast is likewise uninspired – Quinn serves only to be a bargaining chip, Claret and Laverick are essentially the same person, and Harlow is a one-dimensional bitch whose street smarts are severely at odds with her loyalty to a man who doesn’t care about her. Markham is a typical Bond villain, laying out all his plans for the protagonists’ benefit and being evil simply Because.
Side note: Why did Markham decide to attack the penal colony? It’s suggested that he did it to throw the queen off his scent, but wouldn’t it be subtler to simply… leave? He was already on an expedition in wild, uncharted territory, so taking longer than expected would have been plausible. But that would have made too much sense.
Another issue with Before the Broken Star is that it has no clue what kind of book it wants to be. Is it a revenge story? Is it a fairy tale fantasy? Is it a tale of religious oppression and other worlds? Who knows! The world building is all over the place, built upon stories-within-stories that come across as contrived and rules that haven’t been mentioned until after something inexplicable has happened. If King had taken more time to gradually build her world, the plot would have felt more natural. Instead, events are just shoved in for the sake of ease. For example, after nearly drowning, Everley’s clock heart malfunctions and she blacks out. Except she doesn’t black out, because apparently she’s able to manifest her spirit outside of her body and go on spirit vacations to conveniently spy on Markham. How is this possible, you ask? Who knows! Stop asking questions.
Other instances that made little sense or failed to contribute to the story:
Everley marrying Jamison.
Everley being briefly pursued by Doctor Huxley.
Everley killing a sailor pedophile guy.
Claret and Laverick joining the expedition – they didn’t do anything.
Tavis. Tavis as a character was pointless.
These plot points and more were strung together pell-mell to make a nonsensical story with little tension to drive it along. While Emily R. King is skilled at setting a scene and has a strong, expressive style, that alone is not enough to carry a novel of this scope. Before the Broken Star is the first installment in the Evermore Chronicles, but I have no desire to read past this first foray into Everley’s world.