Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim, a genderbent retelling of the classic The Count of Monte Cristo, invites you on an adventure ladened with intrigue and characters you would kill for.
Amaya, known to the world by the alias Silverfish, has worked on the Brackish for seven years, gutting fish. It’s a debtor’s ship—a place where parents who owe debts sell their children to pay them off. Her time of service is almost up, and she’s determined to make it home in time for her mother’s birthday. Unfortunately, on a dive for pearls, she rescues a mysterious stranger from drowning, which causes her captain to become angry with her and add more weeks to her sentence. At first, this makes her resentful of the man, but when she visits him in his cell, he promises her wealth and a new identity, but also something even more valuable—revenge on the person she blames for ruining her life.
Cayo is the son of a wealthy merchant in a dazzling city with a dark underbelly. In the past, he devoted himself to gambling, drinking, and shady dealings with the Slum King, who runs said dark underbelly. Now, Cayo is trying to shake that image and become respectable once more. Meanwhile, his family is falling apart. Not only is their fortune in jeopardy, but his sister has come down with the deadly ash fever, and to buy her a cure, he may have to make a shady deal once again.
Amaya arrives in town under the false identity of the fabulously wealthy Countess Yamaa, and immediately rumors and intrigue surround her. Everyone wants to learn her secrets, including Cayo. He finds her fascinating and longs to get close to her. Amaya, on the other hand, wants to destroy Cayo, because she blames his father for so much of her suffering, but as they become closer, she finds herself falling in love, something she thought her hard heart wasn’t capable of, and she’s no longer sure she can follow through.
Throughout this book, Tara Sim’s prose is stunning. From the first page, she immerses you in the world of slave ships and the high seas. I personally admired her beautiful descriptions and how she was able to use sea metaphors and descriptions for everything. The plot was tight and the pacing was top-notch as well.
What pulled me into this book and wouldn’t let me go, however, were the two leads. I fell in love with Amaya immediately. In the beginning, you can see her struggling with her emotions, trying to separate her former self—the little girl who felt love and compassion—from the person she is now—cold, heartless, and set on revenge. She’s a badass, like so many YA heroines, but unlike so many YA heroines, she didn’t feel flat or too similar. Her backstory was so complex, and her interiority was so well written and truly heartbreaking at times, that I felt for her every step of the way. Cayo was adorable. I admired him so much, because his love for his sister was so strong and despite his checkered past, he was clearly trying to be a better person. In addition, the slow burn romance between these two was pure gold! I loved seeing Amaya soften towards Cayo and Cayo fall head over heels for Amaya. I can’t wait to see where Sim takes them in the sequel.
One issue that many reviews raised with this book is the fact that it is not a fantasy, as it was marketed. This is true—although the story does not take place in our world, there are no magical elements in the story or worldbuilding. It is set in a world very much like ours in the past, but with all names changed, so it reads like historical fiction. This didn’t bother me, because I love historical fiction, but if readers are only interested in fantasy, keep in mind that this might not be the book for you.
Now, the main reason I picked up this book in the first place is because it is a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, one of my favorite stories. I confess I’ve never read the original novel (*cough* fake fan *cough*), but I do adore the 2002 movie, so I was excited and this did not disappoint. This retelling manages to be faithful to the original story, while still making something completely new. I found revenge to be a compelling theme, one I’ve rarely seen explored in YA. Amaya is so singularly focused on revenge, but as she learns more about her family’s past, you also see her shift her perspective and start to wonder… am I seeking revenge on the wrong person?
Whether or not you loved the original novel, you will love this retelling. It is beautifully written, lots of fun, and if nothing else, when you are finished, you will want Cayo to be your best friend.