An ice cream sundae of fantasy reads; sweet, flavored with familiarity, a variety of pleasing textures. Tuttle has created a heroine I wish I could have found at fourteen, a more self-reliant one than Aerin in The Blue Sword–no kidnapping or aging paramour warrior kings necessary. Meralda is an eighteen-year-old mage who uses logic, math, courage and persistence when confronting an array of challenges, both human and occult.
Meralda is the youngest mage and the first woman appointed to the post of Royal Thaumaturge in the kingdom of Tirlin. The king has given her an almost impossible job, to (re)move the shadow of the seven-hundred year-old mages’ Tower that will be shading his historic speech to the Accords. This is the year the Accords are held in Tirlin, a ceremonial and political event that occurs every five years. Unfortunately, there’s a number of life-changing surprises in store.
As usual, I enjoyed the writing style. Tuttle builds an interesting world without information overload, allowing plotting and characterization to flourish over lengthy descriptions of scenery or sewerworks. I particularly enjoy his subtle development of atmosphere, ranging from exhausting marathon research sessions to sunny days in the park, to the intimidating puzzle of the Tower. Initial scenes in the Tower were particularly ominous:
“But here, in the windowless belly of the Tower, she felt as if it were the smallest hour of the longest, darkest night. ‘It’s quiet, all of a sudden,’ said Tervis, in a whisper. ‘Isn’t it?'”
“Meralda played the lamp around the hall. Shadows flew. Some, she thought, more slowly than others.”
The humor is delightful, varying from absurd (the plant’s epithets are fun), to overt banter, to subtle world details (such as mention of a former history text “Trout and Windig’s A History of Tirlin and Erya and Environs, With Generous Illustrations Throughout.”) Meralda’s wizardly familiar is a potted dandyleaf plant who provides sarcasm and concern in equal amounts:
“I’ll stay right where I am. It’s a good place in which to worry oneself sick. Lots of room to drop leaves and shrivel.”
The Guards’ Captain also has a number of fun lines, particularly in his wry assessment of character:
“‘You do love surprises, as I recall.’ Meralda half-turned as she climbed and lifted an eyebrow at the captain. ‘I detest surprises,’ she said. ‘Quite right,’ said the captain. ‘My mistake.'”
Characters are nicely done and have individuality even in brief appearances. There’s the honorable, fatherly Captain, a coachman with a tendency to swear, a pair of former mentors and court wizards pretending to dodder around in the background, a pair of twin guardsmen assigned to Meralda and more. I appreciate–oh, how do I appreciate–that Tuttle doesn’t describe Meralda’s body anywhere in the first third of the book. Pardon me, but as I’ve read several otherwise decent writers making this mistake (Daniel O’Malley, ), I think it’s also worth noting when one gets it right. Although he mentions her brown eyes and fly-away hair, we really have limited physical description, with a similar minimal time spent on clothes. Don’t misunderstand; Tuttle gives enough description to build a sense of a Victorian-like time period with slightly less cumbersome fashion (my historian friends, correct me if needed), but it is not chick-lit-esque with detailed descriptions of her boots, bodice or speshul necklace/hairpiece with mystical powers. She does, in fact, have a black bag:
“She frowned suddenly. ‘I’ve got a bagful of sorcerous implements sufficient to fell the west wing, but I don’t have a hairbrush.'”
You have to love a fantasy heroine that wields fierce math skills:
“‘Mathematics,’ she said, rising. ‘The biggest part of magic. Not the stuff of epic legends, I know, but the stuff of magic nonetheless.'” Can you believe she mentions trigonometry?
Perhaps my one quibble–because there’s always one, that’s just the kind of person I am–is that despite being a fantasy world, the Yang seem oh-so-very Chinese-based, which creates a dissonance between comparing the fantasy version with the real one and testing for accuracy. My world of advice would have been to pick one; either make it rooted in real or not, because otherwise world building comes into question and distances the reader from story.
Despite that, the second read held up very well. I was no less captivated by the story, wanting to finish again before writing the review. Had I been fifteen, I would have loved this unreservedly. It reminds me of The Raven Ring in its focused, independent heroine armed with common sense, determination and fearlessness. But despite a mildly jaundiced eye, this was an extremely enjoyable read. I would recommend to anyone who enjoys a straightforward fantasy complete with happy ending, and wouldn’t hesitate to gift this to my niece, and when the next Meralda book is released, I’ll be buying it as well.
Four and a half stars.