Posts Tagged: cotterill

Fantasy Review: ‘Watersmeet’ by Rachel Cotterill

February 4, 2015 Review 2

Some stories keep you on the edge of your seat with non-stop drama, and some are gentler tales, of people learning about themselves and each other, quietly resolving their problems with thoughtful research or experimentation or negotiation, instead of reaching for the swords every time. This book is in the latter category, which makes it very much my kind of story.

The opening of the book is a nice introduction to the background, one of a basically illiterate population, where both magic and writing are frowned upon. Ailith can read and write, but she has to keep that secret. However, a meeting with a mysterious older man, Malachi, reveals that she has another secret – she is a mage.

Ailith is one of twins, with several other sisters and (maybe?) a brother, too. Her twin is about to be married to a man three times her age, a match arranged by the family and the twin seems to be quite content with that. Ailith, too, has had possible marriages arranged for her, but scared off the suitors by her forthright style, and is resigned to spinsterhood. This is an aspect of the society that absolutely fascinated me. It’s rare these days to find a setting where arranged marriages are calmly accepted as a normal facet of life, yet are not a big plot point. I felt like saying: wait a minute, tell me more about this. How does it actually work? But the story veered off in a different direction, and I never did find out about it. Maybe later in the series.

The magic in this world verges on science. There’s a great deal of herbalism and mixing of minerals to make an amalgam, and the mage then adds just a smidgen of ‘intention’ to turn it into something magical. It’s clear that the author has done her research on herbs and other materials, and if I could have done with less detail, that’s a personal preference, and didn’t impact the story.

Ailith is an interesting character – smart and brave and (frankly) completely reckless sometimes in her willingness to experiment, whether it’s on herself or some other hapless character. I liked that she came from a happy family background, with all the petty little squabbles and differences of any family, but clearly wrapped in affection.

Of the other characters, Leofwin is the most compelling, prowling round his castle at night, obsessively weeding and pruning and tinkering in his garden. I loved his habit of leaping up with a ‘Let’s try it!’ whenever Ailith suggests some particularly outlandish concoction.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I have to congratulate the author on changing the reader’s perceptions of two characters in particular, in very slow, subtle ways. This is difficult to do successfully, and although I think it works better with one character than the other, it’s still very well done.

One aspect that worked less well for me is that Ailith manages to solve all her problems rather too easily. It reduces the tension almost to nothing if, when a crisis arises, she simply decides what particular method is needed, and finds a way to do it. There are no hiccups and nothing goes wrong, everything is resolved quickly and easily. I would have liked a few magical disasters along the way to make me worry for her a bit more.

There is one event in the story which stands out for me. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but Leofwin’s experience in the temple is a brilliant example of an author successfully subverting expectations, while at the same time creating a deeply thought-provoking scenario. I loved this section of the book.

The climax of the story is suitably dramatic, with some unexpected twists and turns. I would have liked a stronger resolution to Malachi’s story, however. He was a major character early on, but his tale trickled away to nothing. I’d have liked more made of Garrick’s father, too. What happened to him should (I thought) have been a momentous event, and given more prominence. And, as mentioned above, I wished I could hear more of Ailith’s twin, and find out whether her marriage was happy or not.

But these are minor points. This was a very enjoyable, well-written read, recommended for fans of quieter, more thoughtful and less action-filled fantasy. Four stars.

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Fantasy Review: ‘Rebellion’ by Rachel Cotterill

September 18, 2014 Review 0

This book was an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected, because it’s something that I picked up cheaply more than two years ago, when I was less careful about my purchases than I am now, and after a few disasters I’m a bit wary of anything that’s been lurking in a dusty corner of my Kindle for any length of time. And pleasure, because this was just a hugely enjoyable read. It started slowly and built very gradually, but it never sagged or got boring. Instead it wormed its way under my skin to become one of the best reads I’ve found this year.

In many ways, it’s a conventional fantasy, a coming of age with a quest, an unusual sort of school, an Empire and exotic countries beyond it, and swords and daggers and horse-drawn carts and market squares. And pirates! Bonus points for the pirates. And the young girl fighting to make her way in a male world isn’t particularly unusual. Even her chosen path of official assassin isn’t uncommon in fantasy.

But in other ways this is very different. There’s no magic, for one thing, and no fantastical animals or races. And main character Eleanor is both smart and independent, thinking her way out of trouble rather than resorting to fights. But she isn’t sickly sweet, either. She is, in many ways, quite an unlikeable character, ambitious and totally focused on her career, to the detriment, perhaps, of other elements of her life. She’s quite prepared to do what it takes to get to the top, and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of other people. Her ruthlessness is what makes her so outstanding as a trainee assassin. So much fantasy tries to square the circle: to make the heroine the best at whatever she does, without ever losing her femininity and innocence. Here the author has addressed this issue head on, and doesn’t shy from the obvious truth: to be the best, you have to do a little trampling of rivals along the way.

One aspect I particularly liked was the world the story was set in. The Empire has some unusual policies. In particular, children are removed from their parents at birth and placed into single-sex schools. At seventeen, they are assigned a role in the Empire’s administration, their suitability determined by some obscure means. They will occupy that role for their whole lives, and there is no right of appeal. The idea of a society without families is an interesting one, and the author touches on the implications only lightly, but it’s refreshing to see a work of fantasy which doesn’t subscribe to the conventional social structures. Unfortunately, very little was done with the idea. Perhaps it becomes more significant in later books.

The book falls naturally into two halves, and the first part is, to my mind, a more cohesive story. Eleanor is offered a derisory position on graduation, which she chooses to reject, instead seeking out the almost legendary Academy where assassins are trained. Her journey becomes a classical quest, seeking clues both to the location of the Academy itself and also the secret of entering it. It’s not a place where applicants simply open a door and walk in. Along the way, Eleanor is forced to take work on a ship, is attacked by pirates, pursued by a vengeful victim of an early theft, and eventually is captured by foreign agents and tortured. This is rather a gruesome section of the book, which made me wonder about the age of intended readers. In many ways this is a classic YA coming of age story, but I wouldn’t recommend it for early teens. However, the puzzles she has to solve to gain admittance to the Academy are rather good, and I enjoyed these greatly.

The second part of the book is spottier. Some elements are drawn out to great length – Eleanor’s choosing of designs for her weapons, for instance, which seems to have no significance and could have been summarised in a sentence or two – while some of the challenges she undertakes were skipped over quite quickly, and I would have preferred a bit more detail. This section also focuses less on Eleanor’s individual problem-solving, and more on her interactions with others and this was (for me) the weakest aspect of the book. The budding romance from the first part is never addressed in any depth, and I found some implausibility in this. Eleanor is the only girl in the establishment, yet there’s no mention at all of sex, which would surely have been an issue, and the putative boyfriend is remarkably low-key throughout. Their given ages were late teens/early twenties, yet they both acted like early teenagers, happy with a platonic relationship. I don’t even recall a proper kiss. This may be the result of separating the sexes at birth and the lack of a family upbringing, but I would have thought that sex was enough of a biological imperative to overcome that handicap.

Another problem I had was with the rather vague sense of ethics. At one point, a contest is won in a way that I, at least, regarded as outright cheating, and although this is discussed, nothing ever comes of it. And then in the climactic challenge, there’s the opposite: an accusation of cheating that I couldn’t understand at all. It would have helped if the rules were made clearer: either contestants are allowed to do whatever it takes to win, or there need to be clearly defined limitations.

The ending, after all the build-up, felt oddly rushed, despite the great length of the book, and then it was straight into the setup for the second book. I would have liked a more resonant finale and some emotional resolution, especially with the boyfriend and the rivals in the contests. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable book which kept me turning the pages, with only a few jarring moments along the way and Eleanor is an unusual and intriguing character. A good four stars.

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