Song of the Siren: Chapter Four

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SONG OF THE SIREN

CHAPTER FOUR: The High Priestess

The endless chasm of the abyss appeared out of the darkness, like a great yawning mouth waiting to snap up unsuspecting prey.

Which, of course, it was. Syra’s people were not the only predators lurking in these depths. 

They weren’t even the largest–compared to the sluggish six-gilled sharks that roamed the ocean floor, or the terrifyingly clever sperm whales that dove down from the Realm Above, Syra’s people were positively tiny.

But they had two advantages over their fellow deep-sea hunters. The first was that the  Sereen–for that was the formal name given to the People of the Abyss–worked together in coordinated packs to take down their prey. The second was that they had nimble fingers, with thumbs capable of grasping and manipulating objects. In a world of fins and flukes, the Sereen alone were able to fashion tools.

Syra’s own weapon, her hard-won krakana, was clutched tightly in her hand, the shark’s teeth catching flickers of her bioluminescent flashes as she neared the edge of the abyss and dove inside.

Sheer walls of stone plunged endlessly down, their outlines impossible to discern against the overall darkness. Her bioluminescent flickers went black as she descended, aiming for a spot on the western edge of the canyon.

Only the specialized sensory tendrils in Syra’s hair, combined with years of memory, allowed her to find the narrow crevice in the side of the trench. Even for her thin-boned frame, it was a tight squeeze, and there was a familiar, heady moment of breathlessness as her gills became temporarily obstructed by the unyielding rock.

She emerged into a cavernous space of light and beauty. The city of Tessai was lit from above, where its domed ceiling twinkled from the lights of millions upon millions of incandescent glow worms. Below, the rough-hewn houses of her people beckoned. As always, Syra’s heart lifted at the sight of her home. 

The bioluminescent worms, known as teora, were the lifeblood of the Sereen. Not only did they provide illumination, which allowed them to develop culture and religion far beyond that of their fellow deep-sea dwellers, but they also provided seasilk. This sturdy, weavable fiber was harvested from the worms and woven to create rope, nets, baskets, and garments.

The teora were worshipped as the divine light of the Gods. They that reigned from the kingdom of eternal darkness had provided the Sereen with the single source of light in the abyss. And the Gods guarded it jealously. 

Despite the efforts of Tessai’s best cultivators, the worms refused to grow in any other environment but this one. In the one experiment that had been allowed, the transplanted teora shriveled and died within days, which led to the priestesses declaring that they had provoked the displeasure of the Gods. The experiments had quickly been discarded, and the scientists punished. 

Privately, Syra wondered if the attempts to farm the teora in foreign environments had been disbanded too quickly. After the first batch died, her grandmother had intervened. The High Priestess claimed that a sacrifice was needed instead to appease the wrath of the Gods. It had taken a long time to find a suitable offering, and even now the worms had not fully recovered.

But if she had doubts, Syra kept them to herself. The priestesses did not abide dissension. Even from the one who would eventually become their leader. Syra’s grandmother, the High Priestess Furae, held reign over the spiritual lives of the Sereen, as she had for more than two hundred years. And when she eventually passed and her body was given to the Abyss, it was expected that Syra would take up the honored position. From the moment of her birth, she had been destined to be the High Priestess.

At only nineteen seasons, she was incredibly young for the role, but it couldn’t be helped.

Syra’s mother had been caught by a fisherman when Syra was but a few months old. Though she’d managed to escape the fisherman’s net, she had been mortally wounded by the barbed spear through her lungs.

Syra could still remember the coppery scent of blood when her mother had finally been retrieved from the Realm Above. The way the beautiful purple scales of her tail fins had faded to a pale white. Her mother had died from the pointed hooks of the monstrous humans who dwelt on the surface.

Even now, the memory was enough to fill Syra with rage as she swam towards the Temple. It was a towering structure, encrusted with shells and barnacles, and given heat by the very breath of the Gods themselves. It was from here that the life of Tessai flowed, bestowing energy and heat to the glow worms, to the city itself. It was because of the Temple that the city continued to grow and thrive, unlike so many neighboring clans which had succumbed in recent years to plague and famine.

The guards at the Temple entrance stood up their arms as they saw her approach. Both women were loyal servants, who had known Syra for most of her life. Her grandmother was waiting in the sacrificial chamber. 

When Syra first saw the High Priestess, she had to stop herself from flickering blue in surprise. I was in the city only a few months ago. When did grandmother grow so old?

Furae had ruled over the temple for generations; she was as much as part of the city as the glowing teora, or the stone roof of the cavern itself. Syra herself had been raised at her grandmother’s tail fins, had learned the ancient traditions of the Sereen, the necessary prayers to the Gods Below. It was because of the High Priestess’ teaching that she had grown to respect her duties, her responsibilities as the heir to the Temple of the Abyss.

But now Furae’s sensory tendrils were fading, losing their luster and becoming limp and gray. The same with the lustrous purple scales on her tails, which were now nearly translucent. It was no surprise–at more than two hundred seasons the High Priestess Furae had lived longer than any Sereen could remember. She had born hundreds if not thousands of young through various male breeders over the years, and of those, nearly sixty had survived into adulthood. An astounding feat, in these dangerous waters.

The weight of her position settled around her shoulders, and Syra raised her chin as she swam forward and bowed low. “You sent for me, grandmother?”

“You have been gone a long time, my child,” Furae said. Syra’s heart gave a surge of relief to hear her grandmother sounding tired, but strong. “The Gods are growing restless.”

Syra nodded. “Not to worry. My warriors are already on their way with a mighty gift for the Abyss. The eyes of a giant squid. And the meat will feed our people for many months.”

“The offering will not be enough. Two hundred eggs have died in the past month alone.” Furae’s bioluminescent flickers went dark as she conveyed the news.

Syra clutched a fist to her forehead in grief. Her gills fluttered as she tried to comprehend this devastating truth. “Have the acolytes come any closer to determining the cause of this plague?”

“The ancient prophecies say nothing of this wave of death,” Furae said, her pale face a grim scowl. “The usual sacrifices are no use here. I fear for the survival of the Sereen, if we have no youth to carry on our bloodlines. We must beseech the Gods. Grant them a sacrifice of old. If we are lucky, this will appease them.”

“But grandmother, is it worth the risk?” Syra cried. “Think of what happened the last time the Gods demanded a sacrifice from the Realm Above!”

The last time a Sereen attempted to lure an offering from the surface had been the night Syra’s mother died.

“You are strong, child. You can face this task. But you must face it alone,” her grandmother said. “Only then will you be ready to inherit the role of High Priestess.”

Furae’s sash of pearl-encrusted seasilk glimmered on her chest, illuminated by the glow of the teora. “Are you prepared to do what is expected of you?” she asked, more out of formality than as an actual question.

Syra had no real choice but to answer, “Of course, High Priestess. I will carry out my duty. I will bring the offering down to the Gods of the Abyss.”

Furae’s satisfied chuckle vibrated through the water. “See that you do.”

 

***

 

“Are you sure we can’t accompany you?” Mara asked, twitching her fins in irritation.

“You know you cannot. It is my sacred duty and mine alone,” Syra replied, sorting through the supplies she might need for her journey.

It would have to be quick. Suitable offerings weren’t often found. 

Young human males were required. But only those old enough to be considered as worthy offerings–that is, those having lived to at least eighteen years of age.

But the Gods preferred the ones who had a certain–innocence about them. 

Difficult enough to find among the sailors and tourists who cruised these waters. Harder still to find one that stayed in the vicinity more than a day or two. Long enough for the Sereen to learn of the potential offering, and gather the magic needed to draw him in.

“Have you ever been to the surface?” Mara questioned, so filled with questions that she lost her usual respect for Syra’s high-ranking position. Not that Syra minded. It was nice, actually, to have a distraction as she braced for the long journey upwards.

“Only once. When my mother died,” she answered.

Immediately, Mara flashed blue lights of submission. “I’m so sorry, my leader. I had forgotten…please forgive me.”

Syra placed a thin-fingered hand on her Beta’s shoulder. “There is nothing to forgive, my friend. All of Tessai knows the story of my mother’s death.”

“Do you look forward to luring the human to its death? To finally avenging the death of your mother, Princess Syrnae?

 

Tonight it would be her duty. Her opportunity. Her life’s dream. To swim the perilous miles up through the night-dark waters to the surface. To undergo the change that only the females of her bloodlines were capable of. And to sing the young male down to his death in the black water of the Abyss.

His kind, the ~humans~ were the ones who were responsible for the death of her mother. She would enjoy watching this sacrifice die. Kyla slung a long, whale-bone dagger into the seasilk belt at her waist. 

“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for years.”

 

The Faerie’s Princess: Chapter Two: The Fated Princess

Click here for Chapter One

Lush green fields raced by in a blur as the dappled gray mare pounded down the path. Thick purple clouds, pregnant with rain, blanketed the sky, stretching beyond the verdant farmland all the way to the sea and its endless horizon. Thunder growled low in the distance. 

The gray mare veered around a bend in the muddy country road, flinging clods of wet earth behind her. Her sides heaved with exertion, and her flanks were flecked with white lather. Seated on the mare’s bare back was a figure in a blue woolen cloak.

Ahead of the horse and cloaked rider, the lane ended in a stone wall nearly five feet high. The rider pressed soft leather boots into the mare’s sides, urging the animal on to greater speeds. The horse responded eagerly, surging into a full gallop as they barreled towards the border wall at the edge of Dunnhawke Castle.

A flock of sparrows took flight in agitation as the mare pounded towards the fence. Her rider leaned forward, digging thin fingers into the animal’s silvery-dark mane. A breathless gasp was lost to the wind and all her muscles clenched in unison as the horse gathered powerful muscles and launched over the wall. 

She came down easily on the other side, barely breaking stride. The rider in the blue cloak came to a seated position, and the horse gradually slowed to a stop. For a moment, all was still except for the pair’s heavy breathing. Then a fierce cry of victory pierced the stillness of the countryside. 

The hood of the blue cloak was thrown back to reveal a young woman with a wild mop of curly auburn hair. Her blue-gray eyes were alight with excitement and triumph.

Princess Gwendolyn Setterwind of Dunnhawke leaned forward, patting the mare’s sweaty neck. “We did it, Aoife! You were incredible!” Beads of perspiration gathered on her brow, and the woman wiped them away with a careless hand.

She sat straighter on the horse’s back, taking in the rich, loamy smell of rain and freshly turned earth. Thunder rumbled again, closer this time, and the wind swirled her hair about her waist and shoulders. Triumph still glittered in moss-green eyes as she looked back at the crumbling stone wall they had cleared.

Let’s see Ronan take that jump, she thought with a smile. 

A brilliant streak of lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the swollen purple thunderheads that were rapidly gathering in the distance. The crash of thunder was immediate, booming overhead with a force that reverberated through her skull.

The horse shied, whinnying with fright. Tremors of fear rippled under the dark gray skin, and the woman leaned forward to lay a calming hand on her neck. “Shhh Aoife. You’re right. Let’s get home. This storm is coming in fast.”

With another gentle nudge of her knees, the horse started off at an uneasy trot that soon melted into a smooth canter. Raindrops began to fall, darkening Gwen’s bright red hair until it lay soaked and almost black against her head. Within minutes, the pair rode through the open gates of Dunnhawke Castle and into the stables.

A tall, broad-shouldered youth of about sixteen was standing near the entrance, his arms crossed and one leg propped against a thick wooden pillar. He looked up and gave the woman a devilish grin when she trotted in.

“Ha! Gwen, there you are! Mother thinks you are at your music lessons but I saw you sneak away,” the boy said, his brown eyes twinkling with mischief. 

The woman dismounted, handing her reins to a nearby stableboy. “I jumped the fence at the border of the Varne’s farm.” she replied, her grin a mirror of his.

“You did not! Not in this mud,” he challenged, looking past her to the pouring rain.

“Truly Ronan, I did. Aoife is as light-footed as a deer, no matter the weather.” Gwen patted the mare’s sleek neck approving, and the horse shook her head as if in affirmation.

The boy looked skeptical, but he cast an approving glance at Aoife. Only a year Gwen’s  junior, her brother was quickly growing into a fierce warrior and there was a never-ending competition between them to see who could best the other.

“I still don’t see why Father gave her to you. I am the eldest son,” Ronan said with a mock sigh.

Gwen shook her head, casting droplets of water over both Aoife and Ronan. “But I am the eldest child. So for now, I get the first choice of the yearly foals.”

Her smile turned wry. “Who knows, perhaps the king will give Aoife to you once I am gone. I doubt that horses are welcome in the lands of the Fae.”

Her brother’s face twisted. He ran a hand through his cropped brown hair. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Gwen sighed. “I know, Ronan. I’m sorry. It’s just all this waiting has me unnerved.” She saw a groom hurrying with a hot bran mash for Aoife and nodded in satisfaction. Certain that the horse was well attended, she turned and began heading towards the castle itself.

“How are preparations coming for the party?” Ronan said, his long limbs easily catching up with her. 

Gwen rolled her eyes. “What party? It’s more like a wake.”

They passed through the heavy oaken doors that stood nearly twenty feet tall at the main entrance to the central keep. As always, Gwen’s eyes went to the many chips and splinters that had been gouged into the wood.

My father’s war to reclaim the throne of Dunnhawke left many scars upon the land, even so many years later. 

I would know better than most.

 

***

 

Gwen remembered clearly the day her father, King Cormac, had come into the nursery with a grave face. It had been a week before her fifth birthday. She was playing with her baby sister, Kaleigh, then only a few months old.

“Gwendolyn, come and talk with me for a moment,” her father said, extending a roughened hand towards her.

Her red curls bouncing, four-year old Gwen ran to her father and placed her tiny palm in his. His presence was a rare occasion in the nursery and she drank in every ounce of his weathered face. 

Despite his relatively young age, King Cormac’s gingery beard was streaked with gray, and there were deep shadows under his eyes. His nose was hooked, making a silhouette not unlike the hawk that flew on the flags above the castle. But his blue eyes were kindly, and if today they were tinged with sadness Gwen was too young to see.

She had never been alone with her father, and a shiver of apprehension went down her spine as he led her by the hand. They went into one of the many small courtyards that were spaced evenly inside the castle keep. 

The afternoon sun streamed through the open space, and wildflowers blossomed in the sunnier patches, filling her nose with their sweet fragrance.

King Cormac led Gwen to a low stone bench. For a moment they sat there in silence, watching the colorful blooms of late spring bursting to life around them.

“Your mother does not wish for me to share the tale I am about to tell you,” he began.

“Is it a scary story, Papa?” Even then, Gwen had been fascinated rather than frightened by the grisly legends that the nursemaids often told to scare the children into staying in their beds. 

Her father had grimaced. “Yes, daughter. I’m afraid it is quite a scary story.”

With that King Cormac had told his young daughter the events that had transpired on the night of her birth. 

How he had saved her mother, secured the realm, and brought peace and prosperity to the people. 

But at a terrible price.

How one day, a member of the Fae court would arrive to take her to their realm beyond the winds. What awaited her there, no one knew. None who had ventured into their lands had ever returned.

When Gwen first heard her fate she’d crumpled inwards, tears of fear and childish woe welling into her eyes, but her father gave her a sharp look and she immediately straightened her back, blinking away her tears.

From the time she could walk and talk, Gwendolyn was taught the proper decorum for a Princess of Dunnhawke. Even at the tender age of four she had learned to master her emotions.

She swallowed back the sob, her small hands pressed into the cold stone of the bench. “When will they come?” she finally managed to ask.

He sighed deeply, and she felt a strong arm hug her around the shoulders and pull her close. Despite her efforts, a tear slid down Gwen’s nose and onto her dress.

She did not dare to glance at her father as he began to speak.

“We do not know. This is why I have defied your mother’s wishes by telling you of the Fae and what they intend. So that you will know what is coming, and can look it in the eye.”

“Why?” her voice quavered as she spoke. 

“So that you might survive.” had come his quiet response.

“And so that you might forgive me.”

 

***

 

Ten years later, Gwen had learned to view everything from a practical standpoint.

Her days had been numbered from the moment she was born. There was nothing anyone could do to change this. Everyone knew that they would die someday, but her fate lie down a far different path.

She might as well accept life as it was.

In the early years, her nurses had kept a constant vigil in the nursery, fearing that at any unguarded moment the Fae might whisk away their infant charge and replace her with a changeling, a vile doppelganger from the fairy realm.

But no emissary from the Fae had come to claim her as a child.

By the time Gwen grew older and learned what fate had in store for her, the story of King Cormac’s bargain had already spread beyond the walls of the castle and into the village of Dunnhawke. Whispers began circulating of the cursed princess and the king who bargained his firstborn daughter for the sake of his realm.

The villagers were initially been outraged at the idea of their king sacrificing his own flesh and blood, but as the rains fell and the crops grew rich and prosperous in their fields, any cries for justice died to a low murmur.

It was hard to be indignant when your children’s bellies were full after months of starvation. 

When Gwen’s brother Ronan was born only eleven months after herself, the people had rejoiced at the healthy heir to the throne of Dunnhawke. Barely a year later, Queen Bronnagh gave birth to twin sons, Seamus and Sean, thus providing plenty of sons to provide a secure lineage. 

Season after season, the rains arrived on time and lasted well into summer. The autumns were mild and dry, perfect for the farmers who reaped bountiful harvests of grain and wheat, more than enough to sustain the kingdom through the winter months. Under King Cormac’s rule, the village grew and thrived.

The royal nursery grew as well. Queen Bronnagh proved as fertile as the Fae had predicted, and Gwen’s brothers and sisters tumbled from every corner of the castle, forever followed by their despairing nursemaids.

By the time Gwen was ten, any whispers against the King’s bargain had died down, and instead the villagers eyes merely followed her whenever she rode her horse down the dusty road. The people of this land were a pragmatic folk, and they were willing to turn a blind eye to one doomed girl in return for the safety and security of their families.

But that is not to say that they felt grateful, or even comfortable around Gwen. Quite the opposite, her presence reminded them up the price they were willing to pay for prosperity. Over time, this evolved into a kind of superstition against the young princess. As a girl, whenever she had tried to play with the farmer’s children they had run from her, many of them hissing, or clutching their thumbs between their first two fingers in the age-old ward against magic.

They all feared to get to close, lest her doomed fate infect them all.

At around twelve-years old, when her figure had begun to ripen, there had been a sudden burst of activity around the court. Rumours pervaded that the Fae intended to claim her on the night of her first bleeding, and the court of Dunnhawke held its breath for Princess Gwendolyn to flower into womanhood. Her chambermaids would hold their breath when they changed the sheets each morning, finally annoying Gwen so much that she had asked the castle’s cook for some duck’s blood and sprinkled it on the white linens to shock them.

Her mother had not enjoyed the joke. But when Gwen began her monthly courses two weeks later, no emissary from the Fae had come to take her away. Life had gone on as before.

 

***

 

Indeed, by that time, Gwen had decided that she simply didn’t care when the Fae would come for her. She couldn’t care, or it would consume her entire life. From her earliest memories she had been known as the fated princess, the doomed princess, the one whose destiny lay in a land that none had ever witnessed and spoke of only in whispers.

Fighting against it would do no good, nor would consulting the various fortune-tellers and soothsayers that occasionally traveled through the kingdom.

Her mother had tried that once, inviting a woman renowned for seeing the future to the castle. The wizened old hag took her coin and—after slaughtering a chicken and studying its entrails—gave the date of Gwen’s fourteenth birthday. The three months that followed were a nightmarish haze of anxiety, anticipation, fear, and excitement. Gwen had stopped eating, stopped playing with her siblings, stopped sleeping as she restlessly paced the echoing stone halls of the castle. 

The eve of her fourteenth birthday arrived, and Gwen spent the entire day vomiting her panic into a chamberpot. That evening in the common room with her family, her mother clutched her hand so tightly Gwen thought her bones might crack beneath the heavy rings. Queen Bronnagh had been heavily pregnant at the time with her third set of twins, and Gwen feared that her departure for the land of the Fae might cause her mother to go into early labor.

The late summer evening was still and hot, the air lying thick and heavy around them. Dusk came early at that time of year, and watching the sun finally sink beneath the horizon of the cobalt sea seemed to take an eternity.

The evening passed in tense silence, her younger siblings escorted to bed by their nurses until it was just Gwen, her parents, and Prince Ronan, who at thirteen years of age was deemed old enough to keep vigil with them. Gwen drew comfort from her brother’s presence; they had been close since their earliest days and Ronan was the closest thing she had to a confidante.

The minutes and hours passed by endlessly, one bleeding into the other until the moon was bright against the velvety black sky. King Cormac spent the evening grinding his teeth, barely able to look at his teenage daughter. Ronan sat quietly on the floor by Gwen’s feet, staring into space.

Gwen had spent her time gazing into the fireplace, her gaze unfocused. She watched for so long that the flickering flames turned into dancing hearth sprites that whirled and twirled around one another in an endless waltz.

Eventually, dawn had broken across the land. The fortune-teller had been wrong. Fortunately for her sake, no trace of the woman was ever found. And fortunately for Gwen’s peace of mind, this was her mother’s last foray into the unsteady world of prophecy and predictions.

In the three years between that day and this, Gwen had been left very much to her own devices. The strict rules of formality that guarded the words and actions of her royal sisters simply did not apply to her, it was not as if she were being prepared for marriage to a foreign prince, or a high-born duke.

From that moment the sun had crested the horizon on her fourteenth birthday, Gwen had an opportunity to do something that few women in the kingdom of Dunnhawke experienced.

She was allowed to become her own person. While her sisters were bound to their dancing classes and music lessons, Gwen rode wild across the springtime meadows, thick with heather and honeysuckle.

She began showing up to the daily lessons between Prince Ronan and Lorcan, the king’s master swordsman.

Lorcan Wolfsbane had gotten his nickname at the age of twelve, when he had been attacked by a pack of four starving wolves in the forests outside his native Andorral. He had slaughtered them all with only a small dagger and dragged their pelts back into his village.

Perhaps it is because he knew what it meant to face great odds, but Lorcan did not object to Gwen’s desire to fight. Knowing that King Cormac’s guilt-riddled leniency might not extend to the sight of his eldest daughter sparring with grown knights twice her size, Lorcan arranged for she and Ronan to practice outside of the castle grounds, in a wide meadow surrounded by a thick copse of trees.

Here they could wail on one another until they were both drenched with sweat, Ronan’s natural competitiveness quickly winning out over his reluctance to strike a girl. They would battle for hours, at first with clunky wooden swords and later, once Gwen had improved, with blunt-edged practice swords.

 

***

 

As Gwen grew older, her curves blossomed and bloomed into those of a woman while her muscles grew lean and toned behind the skirts she was still forced to wear. Her untameable red curls had lengthened until they reached her waist. But her blue-gray eyes took on a flinty, unapproachable look.

Last year, as Gwen neared her seventeenth birthday, a new rumor had come to her ears. She had been bringing Aoife—then just a yearling—into the stables when she passed by a group of three washerwomen who were so involved in their scrubbing and their gossip that they didn’t notice their hooded princess holding the reins of the dappled mare.

Gwen always strained her ears when she heard the castle staff speaking. 

More often than not, it was the grooms and the gardeners who knew the true secrets of the realm. 

Her instincts pricked when she heard her own name.

“Princess Gwen is out riding again. I swear that girl must be completely wild at this point, like a feral cat.” said one of the laundresses under her breath.

“Till the Fae come to claim what’s theirs.” said a second, a plump woman with a rosy face.

“Shhh Dara. They’ll have your head for whispering such things.” the first responded.

Gwen’s heart pounded. It was rare to overhear anyone discussing her at all, let alone in the same breath as the Fae. The first woman was entirely correct, King Cormac’s wrath would be truly fearsome if he found out that members of his staff were chattering openly about his daughter.

“All I’m saying is that the girl should enjoy the pleasures of the world before she is taken.” the plump woman replied, chafed knuckles submerged in a basin of soapy water.

“I do wonder how much pleasure of the world she has enjoyed, if you take my meaning.” the third woman, this one tall and thin as a broom handle, chimed in.

Gwen’s face heated. She twined her fingers into Aoife’s pewter-gray mane. At sixteen, she had some idea of what the washerwoman was referring to. Enough to know that her father would have all three of these women whipped if he learned they had dared question her chastity.

“If she has any sense at all, the princess will keep her virtue until the end of her days. Everyone knows the Fae cannot harm a virgin.”

At the old woman’s words, Gwen dug her fingers so hard into Aoife’s mane that the skittish young horse had stamped a foot, throwing up her head in objection.

All three of the laundresses looked up at the sound. In unison, the blood drained from their faces. They bounded to their feet, though only one still had enough presence of mind to curtsy.

A dark, bitter corner of Gwen’s mind told her to summon the castle guards and have them all thrown into a dungeon for a few days.

But she had no quarrel with these women. It wasn’t their fault that they lived in a castle with an accursed princess. Plus they had unwittingly given her a valuable piece of information.

The Fae could not harm a virgin. At least, that was the rumor.

She merely nodded politely at the washerwomen, and led her horse away. They collapsed, pale and stricken, back onto their low stools.

She handed Aoife over to Andlan, one of the castle grooms. As he took the reins, Gwen looked Andlan over from head to toe. He was perhaps a year or two older than her, with straw-blonde hair and a spray of freckles across his nose.

The Fae could not harm a virgin. Were they waiting to come for her until after she had surrendered her virtue? If she remained a virgin forever, might they never come? 

That night, Gwen had tossed and turned, burning with her newfound knowledge. The tower room in the southern corner of the castle was tiny, but it was her own. She had been given it as a gift after the Fae neglected to show up on her fourteenth birthday. Another symbol of King Cormac’s guilty conscience. 

Finally, when the stars were bright against the night sky and the rest of the castle was asleep, she crept out of bed and down the castle stairs. Long ago, she had borrowed a simple muslin gown from one of the chambermaids. She’d actually stolen the garment–but left behind a purse of silver heavy enough that she felt assured the maid would not weep overlong. She donned the scratchy gown and padded on silent feet into the stables.

Years of useless waiting, of neverending anticipation, made her impulsive, heedless of risk. 

If the Fae would not take her as a virgin, perhaps she could speed fate along through her own devices.

Andlan had been dozing in a bed of hay when she pressed a finger to his lips. With her vibrant red hair tucked under a linen cap and her maid’s disguise, he did not recognize her as a princess of the realm. He’d never asked, too surprised and thrilled of his brilliant good luck to do more than whisper his affirmation to her insistent urgings.

A few kisses, a few pumps of the boy’s hips, and a stab of pain was all it took to make Gwen a woman. 

Afterwards, she’d taken the scraps of bloody muslin from the stolen dress and thrown them into the fire.

“Well!” she’d screamed into the flames, watching the scarlet-stained fabric curl into cinders. “What are you waiting for!”

She fell to her knees in front of the carved fireplace. There was a deep, tearing ache within her center. Tears finally came to her eyes.

“I am a virgin no longer. You are free to do as you will. What are you waiting for!” she hissed to the fire, knowing that there was no one listening.

No one had come that night. Or the nights that followed. It had all been for nought.

If Andlan ever realized that he had actually bedded a princess, he gave no sign of it. Perhaps he understood the necessity of silence on the matter.

Castle life went on around her. She rode her horse. She sparred with her brother. Every day that passed, she felt a little less, became a little less involved in the world around her. 

Eventually, the rumors began circulating that they would come for her on the eighteenth birthday. Like clockwork, the court had sprung into action, and a flurry of whispering preceded her every entrance and followed every exit.

Now, three days before that date, Gwen bid farewell to her brother and climbed the narrow stairs to her tower room.

A celebration had been ordered, not a quiet, fear-filled evening like that of four years ago, but a true party that included the entire court. 

Surely, this would be it.

Surely they would come.

And her life could begin. Or be snuffed out, if the immortal Fae chose. 

At least the waiting would finally be at an end.

Gwen strode up the stairs to her tower room and looked out over the kingdom of Dunnhawke. She both loved and loathed every inch of those fertile green fields.

For her entire life, Gwen’s fate had been out of her hands. As she looked out on the crops of wheat and barley for which she had been traded, she laid another brick around the wall she had slowly built around her heart.

 

Book Review: Tiger Lily by Jodie Lynn Anderson

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Review 2.29

Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair…

Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell. [Source]

The world of YA fantasy is largely dominated by romances that are painfully trite. Too often the relationships in these books can be boiled down to a collection of tropes. We have the obligatory love triangle, the dangerous stranger with a secret softness, and my personal favorite, “the heroine predictably falls in love with the first man who is described in any detail whatsoever”. Even my some of my favorite authors of the genre, like Sarah J. Maas, fall entirely into this pitfall.

For a book that is marketed towards the under 16 crowd, Tiger Lily, the short novel by Jodie Lynn Anderson tells a very mature story. Not in the sexual sense, but in the way it approaches its characters. Tiger Lily is a fierce, competent warrior who knows the risks and the threat inherit in her choices and makes them with calm certainty. For all her ferocity, Anderson captures the vulnerability of Tiger Lily with all the insecurities and passions of youth.

Peter Pan has been portrayed by boys and girls, men and women of all ages for nearly one hundred years. J. M. Barrie’s original source material left so much of Peter’s true motivations up to interpretation, which in my opinion is part of the enduring magic of the story. Here Anderson has made him a complex and romantic boy on the very cusp of manhood; older than in most iterations, Peter is meant to be around seventeen. And while there are no overtly explicit scenes, Peter Pan has always carried sexual undertones and Anderson does not shy away from the sensuality of the story and its characters.

If I had to describe Tiger Lily in one word, it would be enchanting. Every once in awhile there comes a novel that so truly encapsulates the feeling of first love and first heartbreak that it sweeps its reader away on a river of shared experience. The emotional power of Tiger Lily took me completely by surprise, before I even knew what was happening I was lost in Neverland.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Tiger Lily here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Note: By far, the best film adaptation of Peter Pan is the 2003 version, starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs. It is the only one to adequately capture the magic in a similar way to this novel.

 

Book Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (Folk of the Air #1)

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Review 2.22

Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

As Jude becomes more deeply embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, she discovers her own capacity for trickery and bloodshed. But as betrayal threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself. [Source]

 

I first heard about Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince last year, and had been meaning to check it out for ages, but wanted to finish Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series before embarking on another journey into YA fantasy. I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it; I was almost surprised by how much I liked this novel. It manages to avoid a lot of the more glaring tropes that have become disappointingly commonplace in YA fantasy.

The Cruel Prince immediately pulls away from the cluttered pack with its heroine. Jude is a mortal who has grown up in constant fear and danger; she dreams of becoming a knight in order to gain a stable position in the Faerie court. The best thing, she isn’t an archer. I am so tired of women being assigned the bow again and again as their weapon of choice; it’s become a tired and overused cliche. But Jude fights with sword, dagger, and crossbow. And poison. And subterfuge. She never stoops quite low enough to enter “antihero” territory, and her motives are generally honorable, but her actions are decidedly less so, which made for a refreshing change of pace.

The world of the Fae has been described in detail by countless authors, and the immortal lands are limited only by the creative limits of the writer. Is it a dreadful and haunted land of twisted and depraved individuals, like in Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call? Or is it an eternal land of beauty and impossibly gorgeous men, like A Court of Thrones and Roses? Holly Black has taken aspects from both interpretations; her Faerie Court is beautiful and deadly, where immortals live a life of luxury but humans are often bewitched and enslaved. It is also filled with one of the most diverse group of Faeries I can recall. Their skin is in every shade from cerulean to sienna; they have horns or tails or goat’s hooves in place of feet. I particularly liked the figure of Jude’s stepmother, whose cold demeanor covers hidden secrets.

I also enjoyed that Black stayed away from yet another overused cliche; Jude is not motivated by romantic love. She isn’t pining after a lost love, or sacrificing herself to save a lover. She also is not driven by any kind of familial duty. Her relationship with her sisters is largely unexplored, something I hope is remedied in the recently released sequel.

Jude is motivated purely by ambition.

She wants to become a knight simply because she wants to be acknowledged as the best. She has been powerless her entire life, and when the opportunity for power presents itself, she seizes it without hesitation.

Ambition is a heady thing, and I will be interested to see where Jude’s ambition leads her.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Cruel Prince here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Kingdom of Ash (ToG #7) by Sarah J. Maas (2018)

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Review #103

The long-awaited conclusion to Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series, Kingdom of Ash sees Aelin and her friends risking everything they have to fight against the dark armies of Morath and the vicious Queen Maeve. Effort was made to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but some key plot points may be revealed.

Aelin has risked everything to save her people―but at a tremendous cost. Locked within an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin must draw upon her fiery will as she endures months of torture. Aware that yielding to Maeve will doom those she loves keeps her from breaking, though her resolve begins to unravel with each passing day.

For her final installment, bestselling fantasy author Sarah J. Maas wants to make sure that she harnesses every available drop of tension and substance from the world she has worked so long to build. I commented in an earlier post that the first installment of ToG felt rather flat and one-dimensional, with the heroine boasting about her prowess a hell of a lot more than demonstrating it. In the six books following Throne of Glass, the world of Erilea has taken on sharp definition and an emotional weight that builds satisfyingly to a final conclusion.

As always, Maas gets major props for having a diverse cast of kick-ass female heroines at the forefront of her novel. Aelin’s journey comes full circle here, and the readers have been with her for so long as she struggled towards her destiny that to see her reaching her potential was a wonderful moment. Maas has a tendency to use very dramatic writing when narrating Aelin’s point of view. It gives the proceedings a very operatic feeling, but occasionally goes too far to where it begins to feel like self-parody. The character arcs of other important female figures such as Elide and Manon Blackbeak are also brought to a satisfying conclusion.

As strong as all these characters are, Maas certainly does make sure that they are all happily settled in their committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationships by the end of the novel. I wasn’t necessarily bothered by the very traditional “happily ever afters”, but I definitely did notice that the plot would not allow for such-and-such characters to end up apart from one another. It ended up giving the final climactic scenes a predictable feel, since I knew that any of these matched-up characters would not be permitted to die.

At nearly one thousand pages, the rising action of this novel encompasses nearly two-thirds of the book’s length. There are periods when Kingdom of Ash spins its wheels a bit, and feels the need to check it with various characters even when there is no new information to report. It takes nearly seven hundred pages for all of the main characters to finally get together, which gives the middle section a bloated feel, like some of the slower episodes of Game of Thrones.

Overall, I have fully enjoyed my time in Erilea. These novels aren’t perfect but they’re a lot of fun and creative addition to the YA fantasy genre. I continue looking forward to reading more from Sarah J. Maas.

Full disclosure: I skipped Tower of Dawn, the sixth installment in the ToG series. I didn’t want to spent six hundred pages with Chaol, who I always thought was completely boring. I did not regret my decision, and was able to follow the plot of Kingdom of Ash without difficulty.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Kingdom of Ash as well as the rest of the Throne of Glass novels here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review The Heart Forger (The Bone Witch Trilogy #2) by Rin Chupeco (2018)

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Review #39

The second installment of Rin Chupeco’s Bone Witch trilogy continues the story of the dark asha Tea. War and treachery are looming among the kingdoms. Given her newfound connection with the daeva monster, Tea must try to unravel the plots against her while trying to fight the dark power that seeks to engulf her. The plot interlaces the past with the present as Tea begins her ultimate mission to defeat those that she feels have wronged her.

Last month I read The Bone Witch and came away with mixed feelings. The fantasy world that built by Chupeco is both elegant and intricate, and the majority of the first novel is devoted into building the Nine Realms into a solid and believable place. The downside is that so much time and effort was spent on detailing politics, music, and fashion that it felt as though the novel ended before anything significant had happened concerning the plot. I said in my review of the first book that a better title might have been Memoirs of a Magical Geisha.

Following that vein, the second novel could easily be renamed Avatar: The Last Corpsebender. The action that was lacking from The Bone Witch is definitely made up for in The Heart Forger, as we see Tea and her fellow asha wield the four elements (as well as the dead) to defend their allies and defeat their enemies. These sequences rely heavily on the reader being able to follow the action, and here Chupeco succeeds admirably. The long fights between the forces of good and evil could easily have become bogged down and difficult to visualize, but instead they are clearly imagined and conveyed through her writing style.

Our heroine, Tea, is finally given something more interesting to do than marvel over her pretty new clothes and pine after the prince of Kion. She comes into her own in The Heart Forger, and begins questioning the strict rules and traditions that dictact the lives of her and her fellow asha. The bone witches are often scorned and looked down upon by the elders of her guild, and Tea is the one who begins to wonder if this is because they are feared for their powers. There is still a light romantic element to the story, but it is there to empower Tea as opposed to chain her down.

Just as in The Bone Witch, each chapter is preceded by a short flash forward which shows Tea raising an army of monsters and preparing to exact revenge on those who have wronged her. These short previews are used much better here than in the first novel. There, they were somewhat useless and kept pulling me out of my enjoyment of the main narrative. In The Heart Forger they are used to heavily foreshadow events to come. They slowly built a level of suspense that left me eager to find out what was going to happen next.

Overall, this novel was superior to the first installment in many ways. The final book in the trilogy is due to be released next year, and I am greatly looking forward to it.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Heart Forger here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber (2017)

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Review #9

 

Having spent her entire life on the island of Trisda and under the thumb of her bullying father, Scarlett Dragna has dreamed for years of Caraval. A yearly game run by an enigmatic man known only as Legend, Caraval entices participants with the prize of a single magical wish. With the help of a renegade sailor, Scarlett and her sister Tella escape their island and arrive at Legend’s magical island. But Scarlett quickly learns that nothing in Caraval is what is seems, and the consequences could be deadly.

The last two books I read for this blog were both about horribly dysfunctional families and the lasting scars they leave on their children. Having been through the emotional wringer, I wanted my next book to be something a little lighter. I chose Caraval because its cover is gorgeous and I knew it was YA fantasy. Turns out I might have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.

Caraval is a fantasy that exists in a vacuum. The novel opens on the “Conquered Isles” in “Year 50 of the Elantine Dynasty”. Yet we are never told why these Isles were conquered, or by whom. What is the Elantine Dynasty, and what happened fifty years ago to set it in place? A lot of the place names are derived from Spanish such as the hotel La Serpentiene and the Castillo Maldito. Even the name of Scarlett’s home island, Trisda, comes from triste, the Spanish word for sadness. So we’re on Earth? In the past or the future? None of these questions are addressed which made it increasingly difficult to envision this world as a place that has weight and meaning.

Caraval is also a fantasy that exists without any meaningful character description. The only thing we know to be true of Scarlett is that she loves her sister. This is repeated twice a page, lest we should forget. When the generic love interest is introduced, we are subjected to the familiar “I hate him but he’s so intriguing”. Which of course changes without warning to “I cannot live without him”.

Then there are descriptions such as this:

“He tasted like midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue. Colors that made her feel safe and guarded.”

What does that even mean? What the hell does midnight taste like? But that’s not the only example:

“The world tasted like lies and ashes when Scarlett woke.”

“Every touch created colors she had never seen. Colors as soft as velvet and as sharp as sparks that turned into stars.”

“She remembered thinking falling for him would be like falling in love with darkness, but now she imagined he was more like a starry night: the constellations were always there, constant, magnificent guides against the ever-present black.” 

None of that makes a bit of sense, and it kept pulling me out of the novel because I had to roll my eyes. I can get on board with a bit of purple prose, but when you use it at the expense of actual character development it becomes tedious.

The biggest problem was that, at the end of the day, this book was not written for me. It was written for thirteen year old me. Thirteen year old me would have bathed in all of those overly romantic descriptions. She would have reveled in the countless descriptions of gorgeous ball gowns. She would have relished the oh-so passionate and yet determinedly chaste romance between Scarlett and Julian. This book was written for thirteen year old me. Thirty year old me is just too savvy (cynical?) to fall for it.

In the immortal words of Agent Murtaugh, I’m getting too old for this shit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Caraval here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Throne of Glass (Books #1-5) by Sarah J. Maas

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Over the summer I discovered Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) trilogy on a Buzzfeed list of fantasy novels. I read the entire series in a few days and thoroughly enjoyed it. The second installment, A Court of Mist and Fury, was one of my favorite books of the year. When I learned that Maas had another fantasy series out, Throne of Glass (ToG) I quickly downloaded them from my local library and got to work.

I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but there may be important plot points given away. You’ve been warned!

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Magic has been banished from the continent of Erilea. The king of Adarlan has expanded his empire by overthrowing the nearby kingdoms, leaving thousands either in poverty or in slavery. Celaena Sardothien is in the latter category. An infamous assassin, she was sentenced to life in a labor camp after she and her partner were betrayed and caught. After a year of struggling to survive, a man shows up with the power to change her life. The king of Adarlan is holding a contest to find a new Champion. He is recruiting thieves and killers from all of Erilea to compete against one another, the winner to receive riches and a position in the court of Adarlan. Celaena must now compete against others just like herself or risk being thrown back into the horrors of the slave camp.

Aelin Galathynius is a princess without a throne. After the king of Adarlan had her parents slaughtered, she has been running and hiding for most of her life. She journeys across the sea to Wendlyn, the kingdom of the Fae, to beg for help from the ruthless Fae Queen, Maeve.

I love a badass heroine, and there is no more heroine more badass than Celaena Sardothien. I’m going to be very frank right now, the first novel does not do her justice. I noticed something similar with the first installment of ACOTAR. Maas struggles to get her characters on their feet and behaving like people as opposed to paper dolls. Had the series as a whole not gotten such rave reviews I might have stopped reading midway through Throne of Glass. The other characters spend an awful lot of time referring to Celaena as a dangerous, bloodthirsty, heartless killer…but we are often treated to long descriptions of her pretty dresses or the books she likes to read. Celaena frequently muses on how quickly she could kill the people she is interacting with, but we never actually see this happen throughout the duration of the first novel. I got the sense that Maas was trying to make sure her deadly killer could still be seen as likable, but she somehow managed to declaw Celaena in the process. This problem is quickly solved in the next few books, so I would encourage readers to at least get to Crown of Midnight before making any final judgments.

It must be acknowledged that ToG is YA fiction. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I really enjoy YA fantasy, however; it still is reined in by the limitations of its genre. Parts of the series get overly hung-up on various love affairs and relationships. There were times when you want to roll your eyes and tell two of the characters to please just f*ck already so we can move on with the plot. And Aelin Targaryen – I’m sorry –  Galathynius’ journey to reclaim her kingdom takes a lot of time to get off the ground as she weebles and wobbles her way from place to place. ToG shares many themes with GoT except that, for me anyway, it lacked a little of emotional resonance. I never doubted that the characters were going to end up where they wanted to be, and with the impossibly good-looking people they wanted to be with. This isn’t necessarily a criticism; there are few authors in world who can match George R. R. Martin’s malevolent delight in killing off his main characters. It does, however; take away a certain amount of suspense. Who knows, perhaps the next novel in the series will make me eat those words. One can only hope.

After the underwhelming first novel, ToG shakes off its early sluggishness and begins fleshing out its characters and their various story arcs. Our primary focus is on Celaeana, and her journey builds momentum at a blistering pace. Once she gets into her groove, Maas is an expert at hooking her readers and keeping them on the edge of their seats. I recently finished the fifth novel and am livid that I have to wait a few months until the sixth installment becomes available for checkout at the library.

Overall, I would definitely recommend these novels to anyone who is a fan of high fantasy in general and YA fantasy specifically. Yes, there are some moments when you are going to roll your eyes. But overall, the Throne of Glass series is a fun and riveting set of books that is perfect for those days when you want something that is generally uncomplicated but still capable of packing a punch.

Note: I will mention that this series is on the mature end of the YA genre. Some of the scenes get very steamy. I wouldn’t recommend this series to anyone under the age of sixteen. 

You can find the first book of the series here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

My Rating: 4/5

Happy reading everyone!