Lisa Mantchev‘s debut Eyes Like Stars is a delightful whimsy hiding shadows beneath its painted artifice. Bertie is the unconventional blue-haired heroine of a play of her own creation, as she invents the story of how she arrived, a nameless orphan, on the steps of the Theatre Illuminata.
Mantchev has created a charmingly vivid world in the Theatre, peopling it not with actors, but with Players. Ophelia is always drowning, Hamlet is an emotastic little creep, Nate is a pirate from The Little Mermaid, and every night, these Players play themselves in another production. Flashbacks are short bursts of script, which I found to be original and fun, and Matchev didn’t overdo it, and the whole thing tied in nicely with the conclusion of Bertie’s play.
Human in a world full of meta-fictional characters, teenage Bertie does her best to fit into the Theatre, with her bedroom-set, her pranks, and her friendships with the various quasi-fictional characters. And being human, she’s bound to fail.
When Bertie is threatened with expulsion from the Theatre, she attempts to prove her place in this grease-paint world, and in doing so, begins a string of events that will set the Players free from the confines of the Theatre, release them into the real world, and in doing so destroy the only place that she has ever known as home.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Eyes Like Stars was Mantchev’s ability to take well-worn characters and bring them to life in their own right. Enter Peaseblossom, Moth, Cobweb and Mustardseed, who accompany Bertie everywhere she goes, commentating, helping and not-helping her with their own ribald, fairy take on things. Or Ariel, seductive, and menacing, then broken and pitiful (or is he really – this is always the fun with the start of a series).
Ariel’s desire to be free, and his manipulation of Bertie is symbolic of Bertie’s sexual awakening (hey, I’m going out on a limb here – that’s what it seemed like to me) and a slightly safer alternative lies in Nate the pirate. And here is where the book fumbled for me. I couldn’t completely buy the relationship between Bertie and Nate, and many of their scenes felt crowbarred in, forced to be a natural progression, and I just never felt what I think I was meant to feel.
On the other hand, this is a first book in series, and it may be that the awkwardness of the relationship is purposeful, as more of Bertie’s past is revealed in the successive books. The Sea Witch storyline felt rather lost in among all the stuff about the Players’ connection to the Theatre, but that may also be a flaw related to the pacing of a story stretched out over several books. At first it made no sense to me, but by the end of the book, I was willing to see how later books will unfold the Sea Witch story. Coupled with the mystery of the Theatre Manager, and what exactly he knows about Bertie, and wants from her, there’s more than enough build-up to carry the story further.
Although I found the second half stronger than the first, I will most definitely be reading the next Theatre Illuminata book to see where Bertie’s adventures outside the theatre take her.