Star Sapphire and the Land of Gems is a trilogy by Anthony Pardoe. The books – The Ride of Doom, The Raging Torrent and The Crystal Cavern – were all published in 2015 and won the 2016 Purple Dragonfly Book Award. They focus on a ten year old girl who braves a subterranean kingdom of crystals in order to reunite a lost pebble with his friends. As none of the books in the series exceed 200 pages, I will be looking at all three of them in this review.
Star Sapphire has had a strained relationship with her mother ever since her father disappeared while exploring the jungle. While her father was fun to be around, her mother is determined to spoil her summer, forcing her to stay at home and do homework instead of playing at the beach. However, Star is drawn into an adventure when a small pebble in her garden starts to speak to her.
The sea pebble, who she names Jasper, has no legs and so has been stranded away from his friends ever since the sea receded thousands of years before. He begs for Star to carry him down to beach to be with them and, even though it means disobeying her mother, Star knows that she can’t refuse someone who needs her help.
On the way there, disaster strikes. Jasper rolls into an abandoned mine and when Star chases after him, the entrance collapses behind them. Using fluorescing rocks to guide their way, Star and Jasper venture deep into the mine to find a way out. Soon, they come across a kindly agate who informs them that their only hope lies with the Great Sapphire. They must journey to the Crystal Cavern and present their case to him to be allowed to leave. If he refuses them, they will be trapped in the Land of Gems forever…
Before I begin, I’d just like to note that the Star Sapphire series is really intended for a younger audience than most of the books I review. While the stories may hold some appeal for younger teens, it becomes quickly clear on reading them that the books are really aimed at middle grade readers between 8 and 12 years. I also should note that the three books are really one continuous story and so you really need to read them back to back to get a sense of completeness.
The Star Sapphire series presents a unique and original story, brimming with charm and whimsy. The feel of the stories is somewhere between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as Star and Jasper are forced to embark on a lengthy adventure filled with danger and colourful characters in order to return to their respective homes. The overall feel of the story is very light and cheerful. Although not all the gems that Star and Jasper meet are friendly, the books retain a positive tone and so things never become too dark or frightening.
I felt that the setting of the story was one of its greatest aspects. Pardoe’s imagination seems to be limitless in this regard. While a story about a ten year old trudging through a mine could get dull, the author manages to make every cavern she visits unique and interesting. From the golden sands of King Aurum’s kingdom, to the lava fields where peridots are farmed, to the shallow pools where Mother Pearl and her aquamarine mermaids grow pearls – the story is just a feast of creativity and contains a lot of memorable scenes.
The biggest surprise I found from this series was just how educational it was. It is clear that Pardoe knows a lot about crystals and minerals because the text is peppered with interesting facts. Over the course of the story I learned a lot about things like how different kinds of gem are made, how silver is mined, how geodes are sliced open and even a little about crystal healing. If you know a child who already has an interest in rocks and crystals, this a fantastic series for them as it presents useful information in a way that’s really easy for a young reader to digest.
However, the series does have a few nagging problems that I found increasingly frustrating as I read further. Please bear in mind that these opinions are my own as I can see that this series has a number of five star reviews on Amazon so it’s clear that they didn’t annoy most readers.
First of all is the repetition. You kind of expect this to a degree in children’s literature as it helps people who are still learning how to read but, for a short series, these books repeat information far too much. Over the course of 540 pages, you will be reminded again and again about how Jasper has no legs, that he sits in Star’s pocket like a baby kangaroo in its mother’s pouch and that Star needs to change her clothes (because only Sapphires are allowed to wear blue). To makes things even worse, Star tells everyone they meet the story of their journey. Obviously, this gets more frustrating as the novels progress because it just gets longer and longer. No matter how young a reader is, they can remember what happened two chapters before. The repetition just pads out the word count without adding anything new.
There is also a problem with the pacing of the story. While Star and Jasper’s adventure is visually interesting, there are long stretches of the tale where nothing very exciting happens. The best structured of the novels was probably The Raging Torrent as I did feel that this had a good balance between quiet scenes and action, but the other two trickled on at a much more sedate pace. If you’re a reader who likes more thrilling fantasy reads, you might find the Star Sapphire series to be a little slow.
The problem of pacing was particularly noticeable in The Crystal Cavern, as I felt that Pardoe really tried to cram far too much into this final book. The result was that everything felt a little rushed, with Star and Jasper hurried from one cavern to the next without really having the time to appreciate them as they did in the earlier books. When Star does finally get her audience with the Great Sapphire, it’s all over far too quickly. I won’t spoil it for you here but the final novel wrapped up in four pages, leaving no time for good byes between Star and Jasper. This, for me, was the most disappointing thing of all.
However, in terms of characterisation, I did really gravitate towards Star. She felt like a realistic ten year old girl, especially in the opening chapters where you see her strained relationship with her mother (who she believes is deliberately trying to ruin her fun). Over the course of the story, Star gradually learns to appreciate things from her mother’s point of view, as well as how she can do anything she puts her mind to if she doesn’t allow her fears to get the better of her. It’s a strong character arc and it makes her a fantastic role model for a young reader.
Jasper is slightly less consistent. Sometimes, I found his actions quite baffling. I’m not sure why he starts to eat the second that anyone mentions food, or why he seemed to want to steal smaller gems as this is never explained in the story. Yet he does make for some gentle comedy relief, even though I found his habit of falling out of Star’s pocket a little frustrating (this seemed to be the cause of 90% of the problems in the story).
Yet other than this, the story doesn’t really have many strong or memorable characters. The gems seems to fall into two categories. Some, like Agatha and Mother Pearl, are motherly and helpful without question. Others, like the Pitchblendes, are just evil. There is no reason given for why they are so nasty (other than the fact that they’re radioactive) and they have no redeemable features. They just exist to inflict pain and generally just get in Star’s way. Other than Jasper, none of the gems were ever really described so I was also confused as to what they looked like. Were they all rocks with arms and legs or were they supposed to be humanoid (as in Steven Universe)? I never quite worked it out.
Anyway, this review is getting long so I’ll wrap it up. Star Sapphire and the Land of Gems has its faults but it’s a decent enough read for a young reader, especially if they’re interested in rocks and crystals. Its overall message of hope, friendship and honesty is hard to fault and Star is a fantastic role model for a middle grade reader. If you’re in anyway curious, I’d suggest giving it a go. I’d be interested to hear what you think.
The Ride of Doom can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk
The Raging Torrent can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk
The Crystal Cavern can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook from Amazon.co.uk