Hold Back the Stars
By Katie Khan
Penguin Books/Doubleday Books
Review: Thom Day

Carys and Max are stuck in space. They’ve somehow managed to make it through the ring of meteors that surrounds Earth, but their spacecraft has been critically damaged in the process. Now with 90 minutes of oxygen left, they must fight to save each other and prove to the world below that the “utopian” rules governing Earth aren’t as progressive and freeing as they seem.

I generally steer clear of the romance genre, but it’s not often you get the opportunity to read romance set in a utopian post-war future, so I had to give Hold Back the Stars a go. It’s a quick, fun read, and while it hasn’t converted me to Mills & Boone, I did find it surprisingly enjoyable.

It follows the standard girl-meets-boy storyline, but there’s plenty of futuristic elements thrown in to keep non-romance readers intrigued. It’s set in the near future, and opens with Carys and Max stranded outside their dying spacecraft with only 90 minutes of breathable air and no way to contact Earth. The story is split between their last hour and a half together and flashbacks to their burgeoning relationship.

Back on their future Earth, North America and the Middle East have devastated each other with nuclear weapons, and citizens of Europia – happily still including Britain – are Rotated every three years to different Voivodes to encourage cultural appreciation and understanding, and to discourage the possibility of future wars. Europia is governed by Representatives in the Grand Central Hall who uphold the rules of the new utopia, including the rule that serious relationships cannot be formalised (i.e. marriage) until both members are over 30. Carys and Max are in their early twenties, but Max’s grandparents helped establish Europia and set up these rules, so his relationship with Carys threatens his bond with his family and challenges their entire way of life. Carys is an up-and-coming star in the space agency, so to prove the sincerity of their love to the Central Hall – and to Max’s family – they are sent on a dangerous mission to find a way through the meteor field.

The science fiction is fun as long as you don’t dig too deeply – I’m not sure the idea that Earth could capture a ring of meteors would hold up under astrophysical scrutiny – and it doesn’t stand in the way of the story: it’s a romance foremost with a good sci-fi background.

Meanwhile future Earth is an interesting place: Europia is a multicultural utopia, and united blocks exist around the globe, with Rotation occurring every three years. Aid is sent to the former United States, destroyed in a nuclear war with the Middle East, and people are encouraged to travel and learn other languages to increase cultural understanding. Hybrid electric vehicles are the norm, but space exploration has been halted by the meteor cloud now caught in Earth orbit. And there are sprayable bike locks – I don’t know why I like this last detail so much, but it gives the story a great feeling of futuristic domesticity.

The romance itself is sweet, if stereotypically sappy, and Carys and Max are likeable, if stereotypically flawed, characters. Secondary characters are few and exist mainly to further the plot, but Max’s friend Liu is a notable and refreshing exception.

Overall, Hold Back the Stars is an enjoyable, if not overly stimulating, story. The sci-fi elements held my non-romantic attention throughout, and any clunky writing could be mostly smoothed over by these elements. The ending left me disappointed, but this was mainly down to the story fitting the romance, rather than sci-fi, genre. Khan has a great imagination and paints a colourful, intriguing background for her characters to interact against, and I’d be interested to read more of her work in future.

This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 7.