Soulstar has everything I want in a second-world fantasy: socialism, worker's rights, queer people of all stripes and spots, a lovely scene where an awful old rich white man who wanted to rule the world gets turned into a tree. Every element of this story is absolutely wonderful, particularly the elements that were built up over the course of the trilogy. I continue to believe that this trilogy should have been a single unified book with three points of view. (Maybe it would have been, if publishing weren't a hellscape full of editors terrified of anything outside their familiar cookie-cutters.)
There were two things that held me up and kept me from falling madly deeply in love. The first is Robin's romance plot. There was a lot of emotionality in it, and a lot of really interesting evolution of the relationship from the moment Robin discovers her spouse isn't dead to the moment they decide to get remarried. It's a realistic and interesting depiction of what it might be like to try to be in a relationship after believing yourself to be widowed for twenty years. When your true love rises from the grave and rejoins you in the life you built in the wake of their death, how do you reintegrate their presence? How do you do that when they are also processing the incarceration trauma and physical suffering they suffered all the years you thought they were dead?
I think sometimes the answer to that is that, you can't. You can't go back. You grieved and moved on and now you're not in love with them anymore. You're a widow, not a wife, and the two of you don't even know each other anymore. So you have to break up. Unfortunately, although there is some plot that happens that makes it seem like Robin might never see her spouse again (although if you blink you could very well miss it, it happens and then is overturned so quickly), there's never an emotional arc where I believed that this was a possible ending to this book. The romance was a little bit like a train on a track--it's not a surprise when it arrives at the next station on the line.
The other thing I had trouble with was that the socialist revolution encountered a lot of obstacles that were overcome easily because it turns out that even rich people are good at heart. And like... I had a hard time believing this. A really hard time. There's only like one guy in the entire kingdom who wants to kill people to hold on to his money? and he only has like three henchmen doing his dirty work? No way. In reality, the entire landed class and a big chunk of the middle class would kill to hold on to their money rather than risk overturning even a shitty social order on the gamble of building a worker's paradise.
I just couldn't find it in myself to believe in a country without a right-wing terror machine. And like... the scene at the very end where Grace and Robin switch offices, at Grace's suggestion, because she's totally cool with her fortunes in life being dropped down to the level of a woman she recently hired as an advisor, and they joke about it in a genuinely friendly way? Nobody is that good at heart, that they don't feel jealousy and fear at that kind of event. Not even Grace, who was established as an idealist in Stormsong. Even idealists feel fear, and as Yoda taught us, fear leads to anger etc.
Perhaps more importantly on a thematic level, the only reason the revolution is successful is that it's overseen by the immensely powerful elves who are hanging around ready to pass judgement on the country for the whole funneling-souls-into-the-soul-grinder thing. It's not actually a story about the power of people organizing if it takes the power of demigods to lever the monarch off the throne.
I do understand, of course, that optimism and non-violence are Polk's vibe. Maybe they really do believe that people are good at heart! Maybe it's a good thing to have writers like that in the world. Probably it is. Definitely it is. I mean, I wanted to be in love with this book instead of just good friends. Soulstar is a really fun read. I enjoyed it a lot, in spite of my cynicism.