A Cursed Crown: A Review of All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace

Published February 4, 2020 by Imprint (a Macmillan subsidiary)

“It’s as though it whispers to me: ‘We can get out of here. All we have to do is kill him. Aren’t you hungry, Amora?’

And gods, I’m starving.”

All the Stars and Teeth, Adalyn Grace

The whole time I was reading Adalyn Grace’s All the Stars and Teeth, I had to keep reminding myself it was a debut novel. Not because I was being pulled out of the text, but because Grace kept pulling me in. All I could think was: This is Adalyn Grace and y’all better watch out. She’s just getting started.

Grace’s language is beautifully crisp and entrancing, describing a fantasy world so immersive that I could breathe it in like the briny air of Visidia. She let me see the eel-bone crown, its jaws unhinged and symbolically ready to devour its wearer—the fate of every monarch before Princess Amora Montara, the next High Animancer, reader and executor of souls. The soul magic of the Montara bloodline fights for control the moment it awakens and a weak host will have their soul eaten by it.

Everything Amora has done has been to protect her kingdom from being destroyed by magics. But when her trial goes horribly wrong, there’s only terror in her people’s eyes and Amora—too dangerous to be kept free or alive—must escape and figure out how to save her kingdom. Only a journey to the cursed island of Zudoh with a handsome pirate, a bloodthirsty mermaid, and her spurned fiancé can unveil the real history of soul magic and what dark shapes it’s being twisted into––making people live their lives with only half a soul.

The reader sails through the different islands of Visidia alongside Amora, watching Grace’s world building unfold through clothing, food, and architecture. As a fashionista, I adored following the fashion trends of Mornute and getting an intimate look inside the handsome pirate’s wardrobe. Some readers might want fewer descriptions of fine stitching, but to me, they only added to the detailed world.

But it’s the main character, not the world building, who stole my heart. Since I read All the Stars and Teeth, I’ve been trying to put into words the complexities of Princess Amora. There’s an edge of ruthlessness to her, tempered by her conviction and dedication to truth. While she does have moments of self-doubt, it was refreshing to have a young woman protagonist who is so self-assured. Amora has spent her entire life fortifying her soul against a magic that chips away at her, and it shows: she has learned to turn her fears into momentum. Her foundation may be shaken, but she looks an uncertain future in the eye and is determined to protect her people––no matter if they fear her, no matter the mistakes and lies of her family. Amora never felt conceited to me, and even if she did, she can have all the swagger she wants. Her confidence is balanced with setting right the wrongs of her bloodline; she sees through the crown’s empty gestures toward its people and demands action.

I had the pleasure of meeting Adalyn Grace a week after her debut, and I wasn’t surprised to hear she’d set out to make Amora a different sort of YA heroine. I also wasn’t surprised by her thoughts on the secondary characters, because while reading, I often had the sense they were obscured in Amora’s shadow. I wanted more of Vatea, the mermaid displaced by poachers, who’d decided it was time to live on land. And then there was Ferrick, the healer and rejected fiancé. Grace admitted that she often wasn’t sure what to do with Ferrick, except to poke fun at him through the other characters. He has a small arc where he reconciles with Amora, but ultimately, I wasn’t invested in him as a crew member.

While the pacing was much more consistent than what I’m used to seeing in debuts, the final climax felt like it came crashing down on me. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of a slow backstory reveal. A steady buildup can feel more rewarding. However, I do give props to Grace, because ripping away the veil leaves the reader feeling just as unanchored as Amora does in that moment, as her worldview shatters all at once.

The romantic subplot is where All the Stars and Teeth falls firmly into young adult romance tropes. The love interest was glaringly obvious from the start: A fiancé she could never love? A mysterious, attractive stranger who saves her life? Ooh-la-la. I’ve always found it unrealistic that two strangers burdened with saving all of humanity would have any mental energy to develop romantic feelings. Maybe it’s the adrenaline? The tension of being together on a small ship in the middle of the ocean? Regardless, Bastian the Handsome, Cursed Pirate ended up growing on me. The danger, the romantic tension––and even if his role as the male love interest was predictable, Bastian’s tragic backstory and quest for redemption pulled me in. What I truly appreciated by the end, though, was Amora’s ability to set boundaries for herself and Bastian––emotional and physical. This romantic subplot directly addresses consent, unlike the many questionable YA books of a bygone era (i.e., the early 2000s).

All the Stars and Teeth was a delight of a debut. “Just one more chapter” became a mantra while reading––it was so difficult to put down. Visidia is beautiful and, at times, gruesome. Emotions ran hot, but the characters were never frustratingly reckless, as teen protagonists are wont to be. Amora is passionate, but steady at the helm; she thinks like a leader. The sequel will require much more of Amora as a ruler than going on a quest as an individual. I’m sure Amora and Adalyn Grace are up to the task.

Carolyn Janecek

Carolyn Janecek is a Czech-American writer and soon-to-be MFA student at Colorado State University. Carolyn’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida ReviewPermafrost Magazine, and ellipsis… literature & art, among others. Find the rest of their reviews on Instagram @c.e.writespoems