The actual title of the book is what got me: Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, website like this Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, more about Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), cough a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. It sounded sort of like one of Patricia C. Wrede (with or without Caroline Stevermer)’s whimsical titles, and the chapters have the same sort of “In which we meet a Prince”-type headers.
Unfortunately, that’s most of the whimsy of the book itself. The main plot is concerned with Flora Fydraaca (the second of that name, hence the Segunda), who is about to celebrate her Catorcena (fourteenth birthday celebration and coming of age). Unfortunately, her mother is always busy, being a very high-ranked general; her father is crazy; and the house is in terrible disrepair. Also, after her 14th birthday, Flora will be expected to enter the military school, which she doesn’t want to do. She can’t talk to her mother about it very well – Fydraacas, including her older sister, are always in the army and always do very well. What she wants to do is be a ranger, which is sort of a spy or guerrilla warfare expert. Do traditional military-types like this? Heck, no.
So one day, very close to her Catorcena, Flora was running late, and she took the Forbidden Elevator (gasp!) as a shortcut. Of course she got lost upstairs somewhere. There she found a library with incredible amounts of books and the shadow of a denizen named Valefor, a ‘magickal’ being who was supposed to be the Butler of the house (and therefore keep it from falling apart). Apparently Flora’s mother banished him at some point, but he really wants to come back. Therefore Flora (and her best friend and sidekick, Udo, who has triplet fathers) start learning magic. At the same time, a criminal is caught – the Dainty Pirate, who is Udo’s role model in life – so they decide to rescue him. Things go wonky, of course, and there are politics involved, and fake deaths, and horrible things from the nearby empire . . . and, of course, an ambiguous ending, setting up book 2, which (according to the author) is even bigger than book 1.
Although it starts with an infodump, I didn’t feel the book was overlong or more than moderately self-indulgent. It’s a first-person narrator, Flora herself, and she’s almost fourteen. I thought Wilce did an awfully good job capturing the mind of a fourteen-year-old, especially one living in a made-up land. The worldbuilding was awfully good and fairly complete; it’s sort of an odd mixture of Spanish and Mexican with a good dose of Otto von Bismarck thrown in there. The nearby, slightly evil empire is based on Aztec/Incan/Mayan civilization, complete with ritual sacrifices and quetzalcoatls. The plot was pretty fast-paced and while some of the things going on I wasn’t sure a 14-year-old should really be involved with, I figured since that was their age of adulthood, things were different. The jury is still out on Udo, though. He’s described as her ‘glass-gazing sidekick’, meaning that he’s a dandy or a fop. The writer, however, is writing from a 21st-century perspective and I’m a tiny bit afraid that he’s going to turn out to be gay. That would change him from an interesting character into a stereotype. However, he’s just fourteen, so who knows. We’ll see what happens in book 2.
The problem I had with the book was the subject matter versus the audience. The writing style and the large font gave me the impression that this book was almost intended for middle-grade readers (5th-8th), but there are so many things that happen and that are discussed that I would feel better with YA/high school age kids reading it. Flora’s basically neglected; her father has some pretty severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (complete with self-injury and fits of destruction that Flora should NOT have to deal with by herself); there’s a scene where the Warlord, who is pretty old, propositions Flora; the ritual sacrifices in the Aztec-like empire are described. These awful things are kind of tossed off and not really dealt with much, but they exist and they bothered me a bit. I would say that YA/high school readers would be a bit bothered by this book because it comes across as a bit juvenile for them, and younger readers would be bothered by the subject matter. Perhaps the sequel will remove some doubt for me about the intended audience. I’d have to give it 3.5/5 stars, mostly for the worldbuilding.