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The Stars Compel
Michaela Roessner
Tor Books, 430 pages

The Stars Compel
Michaela Roessner
Michaela Roessner's other novels include Walkabout Woman, an anthropological fantasy set in Australia; Vanishing Point, an SF post-apocalyptic millennial novel set primarily in San Jose, California; and The Stars Dispose, the first book of a Renaissance fantasy trilogy about the life of Catherine de Medici, food, and art. She is currently working on the third book in the trilogy.

Michaela Roessner Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Stars Compel

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

As The Stars Compel opens, the Duchessina Catherine de Medici, age 11, has just moved to Rome from Florence and is scheming to foil Pope Clement's plans to marry her off to the King of France. Despite political pressures, she is hoping to wed her handsome cousin, Ippolito. Inevitably, her personal chef, Tommaso Arista, is pulled into her intrigues as he cooks and spies for the Medici family, and studies with famous artists Cellini and Michelangelo so he can learn to create masterpieces of culinary presentation.

This historical fantasy novel set in Renaissance Italy is so long on history and so short on fantasy that I found myself wondering why Michaela Roessner bothered with magic at all, since the fantasy sequences have no bearing on the plot, and precious little influence on the characters. The story stretches over three years (1530-1533), starting with Catherine de Medici's betrothal to the French King and ending with her marriage, and it is largely told from the viewpoint of the fictional chef Tommaso.

Roessner's attention to historical detail (and the fact that this is very clearly a middle book in a series) means that the novel does not have a focussed plot -- it is instead a fairly slow-paced series of events involving many plot threads which are never resolved. So it is a tribute to Roessner's writing that she kept me reading.

What drew me on through the pages was Roessner's terrific depiction of Renaissance life, especially her descriptions of food and cooking. Roessner writes about her chef and the meals he prepares for the Medicis with such loving, authentic detail (even including recipes at the end of the book) that I was swept up by her enthusiasm.

(The menu for a small dinner party, for example, includes: "pork tongues cooked in wine sliced and served cold, a seafood salad, a truffle salad, roast crane and turnips napped with a dulceforte sauce, and fava beans de' Vitellius, the last from a recipe Messer Spada swore came from the ancient gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius.")

Despite a plot which revolves around political and religious intrigue, this novel has a curiously rose-tinted view of history. As one example, 17-year-old Tommaso has no qualms about his homosexual relationship with Michelangelo, and no fears about burning in hell or being reported to the all-powerful, virulently homophobic church. Also very weak is the characterization of Catherine. Even assuming a maturity beyond her years, she is a singularly unconvincing 11-year-old.

Readers who like a fast-paced book may bog down in this novel which is not especially eventful. But for those who'd like a leisurely tour of Renaissance kitchens, it's a pleasant read, best accompanied by a good glass of chianti, a wedge of asiago, some slices of sweet melon, and a little fresh panini.

Copyright © 2001 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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