Our Where Black Stars Rise book review explores the rich and often unsettling world that Nadia Shammas and Marie Enger have created in this eldritch horror graphic novel.
Graphic novels have always made for a fun departure from my regular reading, even if I don’t pick them up all that often. But when I came across Where Black Stars Rise, the horror angle entrapped me, and I knew I wanted to read it.
The concept of the graphic novel is fairly straightforward. The main character, Dr. Amal Robardin, is a Lebanese immigrant and a therapist in training. She’s currently working with her first client, Yasmin, who is a schizophrenic, as well as meeting regularly with her mentor to discuss the case. It seems Yasmin is visited each night by a malevolent presence—but is it just in her head, or is there something real going on here?
The pages filled with Marie Enger’s art are vibrant and yet covered in shadows. The juxtaposition between the deep blacks and bright yellows, purples, greens, and reds is effective, especially as you move through the story. It becomes clear, just from the colors and compositions, which moments are part of real life and which explore the mental health of both these characters.
I found the art to be, at times, chaotic and difficult to consume, but this only added to the experience. It forced me to slow down and take in each panel, to work through what was happening on the page. Life is complex—there are no clean lines or simple illustrations—and I enjoyed that this graphic novel reflected the pandemonium of our collective existence.
As I said, I don’t read many graphic novels, but the art in this one may have affected me the most out of all of them. There are whole pages that are black or yellow, with no figures or dialog. It provides a sense of disorientation. Isolation. But what I found even more interesting were the near-hidden messages in the background of certain panels. Where Black Stars Rise is not a particularly scary or gruesome story, but that shit right there gave me goosebumps.
I could talk about the art all day, but it would be a disservice not to talk about the story in this Where Black Stars Rise book review, as well. The narrative is layered, with Amal struggling to be a good therapist to her client, while also dealing with the disparity between her home life with her partner and her persistent mother back in Lebanon who wants her to visit. While examining Yasmin’s mental health, she must also tackle her own, and this all comes through the lens of the classic horror story of The King in Yellow.
It is easy to feel for Amal, and to want her to succeed. You see her missteps as a therapist, and yet her mistakes are not from lack of trying or caring. In fact, it may be that she cares too much. Tries too hard. Instead of relating to her client on a human level, she attempts to solve Yasmin’s problems by giving her workbooks to complete. She wants so desperately to be a great therapist that she forgets the most basic rule of all—listen.
Only when she steps into Yasmin’s shoes is she able to reflect upon her own issues with her family. And only once she is able to face the horrors of what could be is she able to change her own narrative and write the future she wants to experience.
Where Black Stars Rise is set in modern-day Brooklyn, but it examines the universal experience of diasporic communities—the push to make your own mark on the world and the pull to go back to your roots. What’s more, it’s also an open and honest conversation about mental illness, the significance of therapy, and the importance of communication.
‘Where Black Stars Rise’ published on October 18, 2022
If you like this Where Black Stars Rise book review, check out our books page for more great coverage.