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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Unspoken, by Sarah Rees Brennan, Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012 $18.99.

Girl of Nightmares, by Kendare Blake, Tor Teen, 2012, $17.99.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012, $17.99.

 
THE VERY first adult novel I read was Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt. I think it was a condensed version, in a collection put out by Reader's Digest; I know it was one of the books on my mother's bedroom shelves.

I wasn't very old at the time—young enough to be impressed with myself for reading a book with no pictures. Certainly young enough to be disappointed when other books by the same author didn't feature the same characters. But I loved the story of a governess who actually, oh, liked her charges, and I loved the mystery.

Gothics often have ghosts in the attic (debunked by book's end), and hints of the paranormal: precognition, for instance, or a touch of telepathy that is never explained. They are not, in any strict sense, paranormals, and any book that takes Gothic tropes and pushes them into squarely paranormal territory has often been called "horror." I wasn't much of a horror reader. I was a Gothic reader.

I was therefore very excited when I first heard that Sarah Rees Brennan was writing a YA Gothic, Unspoken. Sarah Rees Brennan read every Gothic, from every tradition, she could get her hands on, and frequently posted hysterically funny plot synopses on her blog. But even if I hadn't read them—and I read every one of them—I would have known, because Unspoken is the literary offspring of all those early books.

It's easy to take the external flags and markers and use them to tell a reasonable story. It's harder to subvert these genre tropes with obvious respect and affection, and it's even harder to subvert them while staying true to the emotional feel of their literary DNA.

Which brings me to Unspoken, the first book in the Lynburn Legacy, in which Sarah Rees Brennan does exactly that.

Kami Glass is the school reporter, a gung-ho girl detective and the book's protagonist. She lives in a small town, Sorry-in-the-Vale, with her parents and her two brothers, goes to the one school the town boasts, and spends time trying to unearth secrets because that's what reporters do. Her partner in reporting—her reluctant but indulgent partner—is Angela, her best friend. Her former best friend drifted away because she found Kami too weird.

It's not the clothing, the sense of humor, or the endless curiosity that made Kami "weird." It's her invisible friend, Jared. She's spoken to him—in her mind—since she could talk. And he answers. This is not the normal, run-of-the-mill invisible friend we all have as children, and Kami's learned, at some cost, to keep mention of Jared to an absolute minimum.

But she doesn't keep time with Jared to the same minimum; she likes to walk home from school alone to discuss the day's events. She likes to take quiet walks at night, for the same reason. She can't really talk to Jared when other people are there—she tends to stare out into space a lot.

Angela knows about Jared, but in an effort not to weird her into the next social group, Kami keeps it quiet—but she's got a big, big story in mind—because the Lynburns are returning to Lynburn manor, which sits atop a hill that can be seen from any vantage in the town below it. The Lynburns aren't royalty, exactly—but in this small town their name means something. Kami wants to know why.

So she starts with Ash, the gorgeous new student at school, and then segues to his cousin, the surly trouble-maker. His name is Jared. This is not a coincidence.

One of the most striking things about this book is the bond between Kami and Jared, and it's striking for what it's not. It's not an instant soul-mate, true-love connection. It's not an act of destiny. It has roots that are darker, and to understand it, Kami has to understand the secrets of the Lynburns.

In the meantime, discovering that the invisible friend—to whom you've told your darkest and most humiliating secrets—is a real person, and at that, one you'd cross streets to avoid, has consequences. Rees Brennan is smart enough to see exactly what they might be, and to give them room to breathe; they are not minimal. I've seldom seen the entire joined-at-the-mind trope played out like this one; it was unexpected.

This book kind of has it all: I laughed out loud a dozen times, held my breath, and even cried. There is a moment in the book in which Kami Glass is looking at the small town in which she lives, when all the safety inherent in the girl detective role has been stripped away—and it is harrowing. I also screamed at the end. It's not a cliffhanger, but it really makes you want book two. Now.

Highly recommended.

 

Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood made a well-deserved splash when it hit stores in 2011. Like Unspoken, it features a Gothic house and a mysterious occupant. Unlike Unspoken, it heads straight into horror country, but at heart, it's a love story. It is definitely not a romance. Theseus Cassio Lowood—Cas to his friends—is a ghost hunter. The job is literally in his blood, because the weapon with which he dispatches ghosts is ancient; it was created with the blood of his forebears. In the hands of Cas, and his father before him, it's a weapon that can send the lingering, murderous dead on to wherever it is the dead go.

Cas isn't interested in the where. The dead he hunts are corporeal enough to kill the living in ways that mirror their own deaths. They aren't precisely sentient, although they possess a certain psychotic cunning; Cas's job is not for the easily spooked.

Nor is it always safe, something Cas knows firsthand. He lost his father to a ghost, and in part he's always on the hunt because he wants to be strong enough and smart enough to go back to the ghost that killed his father and finally take it down. The hunt takes him to Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a dilapidated Victorian, home to Anna Dressed in Blood, a ghost so dangerous she's killed every person who's set foot in her house. That would be a rumored twenty-seven of them.

Cas has never met a ghost like Anna, and even when he has proof that she is exactly as dangerous as rumors suggest, he's drawn to her. Because Anna is self-aware. She's trapped in her house, and she's trapped or cursed into killing, but she doesn't want to kill—and Cas is the only person to walk through her door that she doesn't. For some reason, she doesn't feel compelled to kill Cas, and instead, they talk.

If you haven't read the book, stop now, because it's worth reading, and the rest of this review will be a spoiler, since it talks about Girl of Nightmares, the sequel.

 

Anna is gone.

Cas has chosen to spend the rest of the school year in Thunder Bay. It's the first time he's stayed in one school for so long; usually he hits his ghost, dispatches it, and moves. His mother is an expert at moving into—and out of—a house on very short notice, and as most of her business is done over the internet, they can afford their very itinerant lifestyle. Cas's mother, however, wants him to have something approaching a normal life. She understands why he does what he does—but she's lost a husband to the business, and she does not want to face the death of her only child.

Cas, for the first time he can remember, has friends. Not people he tries to pump for information, but actual friends. It's a new experience for him and he's not always comfortable with it—but he's a lot better than he was in the first book. Carmel, the school's alpha girl, and Thomas, resident witch-in-training and sometime psychic, help him in his continuing quest to kill the dead, an activity that's heavily curtailed because he can only get to ghosts in easy driving range of Thunder Bay.

On one such occasion, Cas falters, and doing so almost gets his friends killed. Carmel knows, and when she confronts him, he confesses: he heard Anna's voice coming from the ghost's mouth and he froze. It's not the first time he sees Anna, and as the days march on, visions of Anna become stronger and stronger—and Anna is not in a happy place.

Neither is Cas. Watching the dead girl you love die over and over again, in slow, horrific and painful ways, is taking a toll. He wants to find Anna. He needs to find Anna. Thomas and Carmel are willing to help, but its clear that no one thinks it's a good idea. Especially since to find Anna, Cas has to use the ghost-killing blade that's been handed down in his family.

Even Gideon, his father's teacher and friend, warns him several times to leave well enough alone. But it's not well enough, to Cas. Anna did kill twenty-seven people in very gruesome ways—but that was because of the curse. She doesn't deserve to spend eternity in Hell, and if that's where she's gone, Cas is going to get her out.

I actually liked the second book better than the first, and I loved the first. I liked watching Cas with Carmel and Thomas, because the events of the previous book have sunk roots; he trusts them in a way he's never really trusted anyone, and he's willing to rely on them when things get tough. I like Carmel's doubts; Thomas is a witch and Cas is a ghost-hunter, so they're tied to a world of death and magic. Carmel is a cheerleader, a socially adept, intelligent go-getter; death wasn't her thing before she met Cas.

Blake takes the elements that made the first book work and expands on them, opening up the world. Cas is the wielder of the athame—but the athame came from somewhere. If he's chosen, someone chose him (or his bloodline). His job is to send ghosts beyond—it is definitively not to bring them back, and when he decides to do just that, some people are not going to be happy.

This book explains a few things that were touched on but not explored in the first book, and it wraps up the story of Cas and Anna in a satisfying way. They're not entirely for the faint of heart, but I recommend both books.

 

Seraphina doesn't involve large, forbidding manors in small towns. It doesn't feature wise-cracking, modern protagonists. This would be because it's not set in our world at all. It's an entirely secondary-world fantasy.

Let me say up front that my luck with secondary-world fantasy in the YA genre is mixed. I love that there's a lot of it, but I often find the world-building thin; it's a veneer that doesn't bear the weight of a lot of thought.

There are notable exceptions to this, particularly Kristin Cashore's novels and Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books. Joining them is Seraphina, Rachel Hartman's debut novel. This is such an assured first novel I hunted around online to see what else she might have written first…and came up with no fiction.

Forty years ago, a treaty between the human kingdom of Goredd and the Ardmagar of the Dragons was signed. For forty years, peace has existed between these two races. To further peace, the dragons live among the mortals, because dragons can—with effort—take mortal forms.

They are not, however, mortals. There are strict rules that govern their interactions with mortals, and those rules are enforced by the dragon Censors. Dragons in mortal form must guard against an excess of incorrect emotion, and if they are caught in acts of such insanity by the Censors, they are returned home to have their memories excised.

Seraphina is living proof that the Censors can't always catch those who break their edicts: she is the child of a mortal and a dragon. Such unions are illegal. The offspring of such unions exist as the punchline of obscene jokes or insults; no one believes they're real.

She spent the early years of her childhood in ignorance of her heritage—but when scales erupted across parts of her body, the truth couldn't be kept from her. With the scales came visions of numerous strangers—visions she couldn't control. Only with the intervention of her uncle, and his suggestion that she name and place the people she could see in these visions, did she gain control over them: she built a garden in her mind, and she tends it every evening in the dark. It is peopled by the strange and unusual, and she's imagined a peaceful place for each. There's only one that she's locked away, because it threatened to swamp her and overpower her.

Seraphina is the daughter of a lawyer responsible for the legal defense of dragons accused, in human courts, of crimes. She is aware that she must be careful; she must remain hidden. But she is a musical prodigy and no one who hears her play—or sing—can disregard her. Although young, she has been chosen by Viridius, the master musician of the royal palace, as his effective second in command.

One of her tasks is teaching the princess Glisselda, a girl only one year younger who happens to be in direct line for the throne.

Seraphina's Uncle Orma is a scholar. Most of the human-form dragons are required by law to wear bells; scholars are exempt. Orma has lived among humans for long enough that most do not know him for dragon, although other dragons can always tell; they pick up each other's scents.

Orma has been a part of Seraphina's life for as long as she can remember. She knows the Censors watch him, and she knows they're particularly suspicious of his attachment—to her. She almost lost her life to one such test of affection.

But she's cautiously happy in her job at the palace, until the day Prince Rufus's headless body is found. Decapitation of this type is reminiscent of the dragon wars, and Prince Lucian Kiggs, the bastard cousin of Princess Glisselda and leader of the guard, suspects the Sons of St. Ogdo, a racist group intent upon fanning the flames of dragon hatred among humans. Seraphina is drawn to Prince Lucian because he has a highly logical mind and he looks at facts almost dispassionately, as she does.

The peace is the Queen's pride—and it is a peace only a formidable woman could have brokered. No one in her family wishes to believe that dragons are the killers. It is Seraphina who will discover the truth. Seraphina is not particularly adept at the smart comeback, the snappy riposte—but she is quietly determined, rising time and again above her necessary fears to do what must be done.

I've made this book sound vastly more quotidian than it is; there is real magic here. I absolutely loved this book; I can't remember the last time I've responded this way to a novel. It may have been early Patricia McKillip or early Robin McKinley.

This is clearly the first of a series—and I cannot wait for the rest.

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