Judged by Tori • Find her on Goodreads
After reading both these books, I was a little stumped on how I was going to judge them, given how different they are from each other. Shield of Stars by Hilari Bell is a fantasy novel, complete with kings, gods, and a plot to overthrow the government. Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta tells a more ordinary – but no less compelling – story of a girl struggling through family turmoil.
Although very different, these two novels have more in common than first appears evident. Both deal with loss of belief and discovery of self, although the belief systems vary wildly.
Shield of Stars is the story of Weasel, caught up in a revolution against his will. When his benefactor and savior, Justice Hollis, is arrested and sentenced to death, Weasel undertakes a journey to save him. With the help of a fellow prisoner, a young girl named Arisa, the two of them journey into the countryside in search of the elusive bandit, the Falcon.
Weasel, born and bread in the city, and a common criminal making his living as a pickpocket before he was taken in by Hollis, doesn’t have a lot he believes in. Throughout the novel, Arisa attempts to get him to believe in something – the rebellion, the gods, her fortune telling ability. Throughout it all, Weasel staunchly maintains that his only motivation is saving Justice Hollis, that he doesn’t believe in any greater cause.
This claim is undermined on more than one occasion in the novel, notably when he balks at the idea of killing to achieve his goals, and when he and Arisa are conned by a fellow criminal. These instances prove his ability to believe in, and act for, more than just his own means. All of which climaxes with Weasel choosing to compromise, not only for his own sake and the safety of Justice Hollis (previously his primary motivator), but for the good of the Kingdom.
When Shield of Stars begins, Weasel sees himself as an entirely selfish and self motivated individual. Throughout his journey, he learns an appreciation of how other people in the kingdom live, their beliefs and what compels them. I’m eager to read the rest of the trilogy to find out how selfless of a character he might become.
Saving Francesca’s titular character follows an almost opposite journey. When the story kicks off, she’s very comfortably situated in her life. She has her friends (her “friends,” her mother would refer to them as), her family, her place in the world as she sees it is very much settled.
The novel opens with Francesca struggling to fit in at St. Sebastian’s, a boys’ school masquerading as co-ed. Fitting in to a school with only 30 girls seems like an insurmountable task, until the morning where Francesca’s mother doesn’t get out of bed.
As Francesca and her family struggle to cope with her mother’s depression, she starts to find a new place for herself in the world. A place where the people around her truly care about her instead of only pretending to. A place where she is cherished and loved, even when she is difficult – and she often is.
As I was reading I kept thinking to myself how Francesca was the kind of teenager – the kind of person, really – I wished I could be like. The kind who people flock to, the kind who holds everyone together, because that is what Francesca does throughout her story even when it’s hard, even when it doesn’t seem like it.
The budding relationship between herself and Will is charged and romantic (can I just say, Sophia Loren?). Her friendships are achingly real, and remind me of the women I have in my own life. Her family relationships are tough and sad.
My maternal grandmother suffered from mental illness. She passed away when I was in my early teens, before I had the chance to really understand what that meant. I think my mom did her best to shield myself and my siblings from her own tumultuous relationship with her mother. Mental illness is tough on everyone it touches, not just those who are themselves suffering. Francesca’s mother hovers like a specter over most of the book in a way that reminds me of my late grandmother. The way the ripples cascade out even now, more than a decade since her death.
The novel’s emotional climax had me in tears (I would suggest not reading this book at work like I did), and even just thinking about it now as I write this up has me a little choked up. A friend of mine described the novel as emotionally powerful, not only in how the book made her feel, but how it made her feel about herself. I couldn’t agree more, and for that reason I am selecting Saving Francesca to advance to the next round.