Elloren Gardner is the granddaughter of Cessina Gardner, the illustrious Black Witch whose powers as a mage were largely responsible for the Gardnerians’ victory in the 13-year Realm War. Though Cessina was killed in a battle, the Gardnerians emerged from the war as the prophesied First Children of the Ancient One: powerful and (above all) racially pure. Their enemies – the shapeshifting Lupines, the Kelts, the Fae, the Urisk, and most horrifying of all, the winged Icarals – have tended to interbreed, and are, as Elloren and her brothers Rafe and Tristan have learned from their cradles, dangerous. Tristan has inherited some of his grandmother’s powers, but Rafe has not – and Elloren, despite a disquieting episode when she was 3, is sure she hasn’t either. As the book opens, she is living in the pastoral seclusion her Uncle Edwin chose when he became the children’s guardian. He is a violin maker, uncomfortable with Gardnerian ideals and worried about Elloren’s striking resemblance to the Black Witch.
Enter Aunt Vyvian, daughter of the Black Witch and a powerful member of the Mage Council that governs Gardneria. She is horrified to learn that Uncle Edwin has arranged for Elloren to go to Verpax University, where Rafe and Tristan study. Verpax admits students of inferior races and mixed blood – even Icarals! If Elloren isn’t wandfasted (married for life) before she attends, she might fall in love with somebody totally unsuitable! But Uncle Edwin insists; the best Aunt Vyvian can do is offer to take Elloren under her wing. Elloren is thrilled with the prospect of becoming a trained apothecary and, when she reaches the city, overwhelmed by the beauty of Vyvian’s house and clothes. She is also attracted to Lukas, the man with whom Vyvian wants her to wandfast. She has, however, promised Uncle Edwin to wait for wandfasting until she has finished her education, so she refuses Lukas’ offer. In revenge, Vyvian ensures that her experiences in the university are horrendous. She is assigned a room with two Icarals who hate her. For lack of fees, she must work in the kitchen with a Kelt (Yvan) and Urisks, who also fear her. And Fallon Bane, the most powerful student mage, hates her because she wants Lukas for herself. Surrounded by people whose hatred confirms her prejudices, Elloren is miserable … until she begins to see them as people like herself, and gradually realizes that her aunt and other powerful Gardnerians have a history of torture and oppression carefully kept from their people.
Though this fantasy has been the victim of an online campaign that has branded it as homophobic and racist, it is in fact a tale of gradual social and political education. Its first-person narration demands that Elloren’s initial fears and reactions are the products of the attitudes encouraged by propaganda; but only hopelessly literalist readers could assume that Forest agrees with her heroine’s views. Halfway through, Elloren begins to see the horrors behind Gardnerian power, and she subsequently fights political oppression with courage and determination. The awakening is a little slow in coming (350 pages is a long time for a heroine to pick up on the hints the author has been dropping for alert readers), but the characters, though they owe more to J.K. Rowling than to Tolkien, are intriguing and believable. It is a great read, and an interesting investigation of a naïve but intelligent heroine’s realization that the First Children are undergoing a rapid conversion to fascism.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.