While the era of the western novel may have come and gone, this book, which came out in 2016, proves that high fantasy is still going strong. It has all the elements of an archetype of this trope: magic, queens, men with swords and armor, danger, a school for young mages … heck, it even has a sentient wolf. Its first major difference with others of its trope is that in this world, the characters realize that the age-old question of good versus evil can’t be solved through genocide. You can’t just go to war and kill all the spirits, even though they sometimes kill people. Also, there are far more female characters in this book than in most fantasy that doesn’t have Mercedes Lackey’s name on the cover.
Delana finds out she has the magical gift to control spirits when her village is attacked during a spirit uprising. The spirits in this book are more like faeries, each identified with an element, varying in power and affect, and bent on the twin impulses of creation and destruction. They long to destroy humankind but are kept in check by the power of the queen. The good news is that Delana has enough power to save her family. The bad news is that she’s really lacking in talent, and will probably never amount to much more than a hedge witch.
This is the part that really took a left turn. In any other book, the supposedly talentless girl would soon find that she was more skilled than all the others. Any other book would not suffer the reader to follow the aspirations of a mediocre mage. As someone who is supremely lacking in talent in several different hobbies that I dearly enjoy doing, I found this refreshing. Delana tries harder than the other girls, studies harder, practices more, cares more, and while she does get better, her inferiority remains throughout the novel. She’s never the best, but she gets better and proves herself worthy of a chance at becoming queen.
Another change that was kind of refreshing is that Delana, the 20 year old graduate of the Academy, goes out into the woods with Venn, the maybe 40 something seasoned warrior so he can train her, and they DON’T have an affair. It’s not even hinted at. Delana has sex with other men, and it’s healthy and consensual, and Venn is heterosexual, but it doesn’t go down that squicky power-differential path. The fact that I expected it probably means that I’ve been watching too many movies in which men date women young enough to be their daughters (which is pretty much all of them, even the ones supposedly geared at women, looking at you Magic Mike XXL). Also, plenty of the guards and champions are women, which is great because as long as we’re fantasizing about a world in which spirits can make trees grow into houses in the space of an afternoon, we might as well imagine that world as one in which women can fight if they want to.
So, I did enjoy the feminist angle of the book, and the snub at the nose of people who worship in the cult of “talent.” But other than that, it’s pretty standard fantasy fare. There’s no aspect of this book that I haven’t encountered in several other books, so it’s about as groundbreaking as that “new” Taco Bell offering created out of a slight re-arrangement of some of the 12 ingredients that comprise everything on the menu. And, while the author made an effort to give several of the girls personalities, there aren’t any of the characters that I’ll really think about now that I’m done listening to the novel.
To sum up, it’s pretty good. Not earth-shattering, not ground-breaking, but pretty good, and if you’re into fantasy, give it a read.