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HFC Editorial Review of "The Stars That Govern Us" by J. R. Alcyone

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

Author Bio:

J.R. Alcyone writes historical and literary fiction novels for readers who believe made up stories matter and can change the world. An Ohio native, she is a graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College, where she majored in history and philosophy, and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where she was managing editor for the Cleveland State Law Review. Her first novel, Five Fathoms Beneath, is a dark literary story about suicide in the medical profession. Her second novel, The Stars That Govern Us, is set against the historical backdrop of the invention of the heart-lung machine in the mid-1950s. When she is not writing, she enjoys nature photography, hiking, and reading.

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Editorial Review:

We are but dust and shadows.

When a child’s chest was open, her heart exposed, disaster lurked over the surgeons’ shoulders, waiting for the slightest misstep, their tiniest slip in concentration.

This novel is truly one-of-a-kind and a perfect detour from the typical historical fiction on the market today. Do not let the “medical” theme scare you away, this is a book to read and cherish, for just like a skilled heart surgeon, Ms Alcyone reaches into your chest and writes this story on the walls of your heart by exploring all the avenues of true friendship, a heroic profession, the sufferings of the vulnerable, and the distress of the mental and physical strain of being a doctor. Not to mention, at a time in history, the 1950s, when innovations and taking chances in the medical field meant the difference between life and death.

With that, we have Alec Serafeim and Pete O’Neill, best friends and teammates in the field of performing congenital heart surgeries. They are both incredibly gifted, but their desire (or rather Alec’s desire to excel, to become the best) pushes the limits of both of them, both physically and mentally. Not only do you see the side of the children who are suffering with holes in their hearts, you also see the fragile, yet brave, hearts of the surgeons who are desperate to change these children’s lives. Alec’s desire to do more clashes against his best friend’s contentment in their accomplishments, and comes to reveal the secrets in his own heart of why he pushes himself to excel.

When the opportunity arises to be the first to perform an open-heart surgery using a heart bypass machine, Alec becomes obsessed to beat the other team of doctors at another hospital as the first to bring this to Australia. Yet, Pete, who is struggling with his own health issues, has reservations when Alec chooses a child whose fragile heart might not survive the dangerous procedure. Is Alec just using the child for his own ambition, overlooking the tenuous line between life and death for this young girl?

The resulting events of the surgery and concerns about Pete’s health send Alec reeling into the dark recesses of his mind, questioning everything about being a surgeon and revealing secrets of his past which have haunted him for years. His mother’s words echo in his own heart, bringing him to the ultimate realization that humans are incredibly fragile and imperfect creatures – a difficult notion for surgeons who are viewed as heroic lifesavers.

Set against a fictionalized, yet stunning, version of Perth Australia, this story is not to be missed – unforgettable, heartbreaking, passionate, ambitious, relatable in a profound way, believable well-rounded characters, and incredibly touching. While I was hesitant about reading a lot of medical jargon, Ms Alcyone infused that necessary part of the story into the stunning narrative of these two doctor’s lives with beautiful finesse. Never once did I feel like I was reading a medical journal, but rather I became intrigued, sitting on the edge of my seat as some of the surgeries are performed. And it helped tremendously that you come to love these two men whose friendship is the hallmark of this story, and their back-and-forth banter felt so real and authentic. More than once, the tears flowed.

This book is a stunning accomplishment and show Ms Alcyone’s skill as a storyteller in much the same way as her own character’s gifted talents lie in heart surgery. As an author, the ultimate desire is to touch someone’s heart, and the use of telling a story about heart surgeons to connect with readers is nothing more than brilliant. The amount of research done for this book was evident and mind-blowing, not only in the medical field relating to the actual surgeries and to manic depression, but in small details, such as the inner workings of relationships, or how to sail (or not sail) a boat. Another tidbit I adored was the addition of the character’s affinity for relating his life in quotes he remembers from Shakespeare or Tennyson – which are, in fact, two of my favorites, as well; or how tying knots in a string helps his anxiety. All of these small endearing inclusions, no matter how small, makes the reader feel like you actually know these characters in real life. Ms Alcyone has earned a new fan and I am eager to read more from this author.

Here are some of my favorite passages (just a few since I have two pages worth of notes!):

Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day,” he mumbled, quoting Macbeth.


For after all,” Alec said, rotating toward his partner and gesturing to the window., “the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.” Pete looked up from scowling at the site where the nurse had drawn blood. As usual, his hair was sticking up at a hundred different angles in the back, giving him a boyish look despite his pallor and the black hollows under his eyes. “Tennyson?”

You always guess Tennyson. The quote was from Longfellow.” Alec closed his eyes, mind hurdling to Tennyson’s famous poem about the doomed cavalry charge at Balaclava.

Someone had blundered.

That’s because I like Tennyson. Maybe you should start quoting Tennyson so I can be right occasionally.”


My father likes to say a chef can cover his mistakes with cheese, and an architect can always advise his clients to plant ivy..... An author can always write another book, and a director can always make another film. A painter can find a new canvas, and a salesman can develop a new pitch. Even a lawyer whose client has been sentenced to hang can file an appeal. But a doctor? A doctor buries his failures in the sod along with a piece of himself.”


“The Stars That Govern Us” by J. C. Alcyone has earned five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award from The Historical Fiction Company.


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