Note that this review is based on an advance review copy for which I thank the author and publisher.
I was so impressed with this novel that I began to think that the author had been through all of my reviews, made notes of the things which tick me off in YA novels, and then strove to avoid all of them in her writing. It was, frankly, a bit creepy! Obviously she didn't actually do that, but I have to say this was a remarkable read, and hit all the high notes for me (that's an inside joke - you'll have to read the novel to discover what it means!
Elizabeth Gracen has had an interesting history in film and print, and this is her debut novel. It's very good and refreshingly different - playful, inventive, humorous, original, and a truly engaging read. Illustrated with welcome insight by means of a few (too few for me!) delightful images from talented artist Luca di Napoli, this is written in an easy-going, quick-moving style if, I have to add, a little stilted on occasion in the conversations. It tells the story of young Filipina, heir not-so-apparent to the oracle Theano, and of Fippa's young friend Ision, a soldier.
It has a prologue which I skipped as I do all prologues (and I never miss them!). Chapter one launches us right into the middle of things, which is where I love to begin a story, with Ision being cast into another realm and Fippa electing to go after him in an effort to prevent the evil Timeus from succeeding in his plans, which rely on keeping them apart. The first thing Fippa does is to get drunk! How many times have you read that in a fairy-tale?! I was hooked.
Technically, Fippa isn't a fairy, but one of the butterfly girls known as Shalilly, and she really didn't intend to get passed-out drunk on the nectar. It was just so good! I mean come on. Tell me you've never drunk so much nectar you haven't passed out. I knew it! This episode does educate her and strengthen her resolve, however. It was honestly refreshing to encounter a young, leading character who quickly learns from her mistakes, and it soon becomes clear that Fippa is dedicated to her mission, and constantly re-evaluating strategies to achieve her aim. She has a lot going on upstairs and it was so nice to read of a female character written by a female author who had more on her mind than how studly her beau was (not that she didn't have that on her mind, too!). See, YA writers? It can be done! Elizabeth Gracen shows you how!
That's not to say Fippa is perfect though. She has a temper and a jealous streak on which she has to strive to keep a tight rein, and these are traits which do not help her circumstances. Fippa's experiences in Paradigm, the fairy-tale world which she volunteered to visit in order to save Ision are very entertaining, but she quickly becomes disempowered, and a prisoner - and a despised one at that. Now her job is all the more difficult, and she has only her wits to save the day, but she proves equal to the task.
In a page (or two!) taken from One Thousand and One Nights , she tells Ision, who is now ignorant of their critical past, a story in the hopes of educating him as gently as she can. I'm not a fan of flashbacks at all, but this was one way of doing this, and which didn't feel false. It didn't even feel like it was interrupting the story because it was an integral part of it. Nicely done! Some might find this section a bit long, and I confess I missed the Shalilly version of Fippa quite honestly, but never was there any point where I wanted to skip this part.
The humor was a delight, yet the story was also serious. I did find some unintentional humor, but more than likely it's just me being weird. One example I remember was at the beginning, where I read, "Ision felt the horse slow its pace as Fippa placed her hand on his." Now it's obvious what is meant here, but the way it's written, if you're as warped about writing as I am, it can be deemed that Pippa put her hand on the horse's hand. Hey, it's a fantasy - it could happen! And we know the horse was maybe fifteen or sixteen hands, so that's a lot of hands to go around! LOL!
Not that I'm going to downgrade a story for that kind of thing, but as a writer, it's worth keeping in mind that it's not only what you write, but also the way you write it. As it was, this novel was warm enough and such a joy to read that I could overlook more serious problems than this (not that there were any here), and that counts too: your readers will forgive you a lot more if you give them good reasons to!
Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I always find something to carp about, but it was really hard to find anything wrong here. Yes, there was the cliché of the heroic dude with the "gold-flecked green eyes" - gold flecks are way over done in YA literature - but it seemed like every time I experienced a growing fear that this story was going down to tropeville, the author took it in another direction and saved it. Hence my feeling that she'd been reading my reviews!
Sometimes the language seemed a bit overly modern for ancient Greece, such as when Ision says, "...chuck it all...", and other times there were questionable turns of phrase, such as when Fippa says, "What if they could care less if I am returned?" What she meant was "What if they couldn't care less..." Normally this wouldn't bother me because people really do speak like that in real life, but this was not modern life where that phrase has entered common use - it was ancient Greece (or a very near approximation to it), so it felt like this ought to have been more accurate.
The last thing I'd mention is that "I am a girl who has barely stepped foot..." is a pet peeve of mine. I don't like 'stepped foot' because to me it sounds odd and clunky. I know authors write this routinely, but in this particular case, I'd like to argue that the more traditional "set foot" would have been a better choice of words for a charming story like this. It's worth thinking about as a writer, but as a reader, none of this was worth down-grading a novel over, by any means, because it would be mean!
I've been to Greece more than once and I've actually been to the Delphi area. It was beautiful, and the writing really brings out the essence of the country and the scenery without going into excessive detail. The author writes it beautifully, and she depicts the ancient Delphi oracle to perfection in my opinion.
Talking of essence, this novel made me wish I could bottle the essence of how she wrote it so I could unleash it on my own writing! The novel is so good that it almost makes a fellow writer wish for its author to fall on her face in her next outing just so he can feel better about his own efforts! But since I fell in love with the Shalilly (shamelessly and inappropriately so, I confess) I'm going to be bigger than that, and instead congratulate Elizabeth Gracen on a really good novel, and wish her all the best. Grace-n is the perfect name for this author! I recommend this novel highly, and I now I must endure the agonizing (<-Greek roots word!) wait for her next novel! O the Phates! (<-Greek joke word!)