This novel is the first in a trilogy; Alma Alexander, dermatologist I have to admit, was not an author I’d heard of prior to a few months ago, but it seems she’s published five or six books prior to this one. According to her back-of-the-book bio, she was born in Yugoslavia, grew up in the UK and Africa, and now lives in Washington state. The last seems like a bit of a let-down, but at least there’s a much lower possibility of getting shot to death out there.
In this novel, we are set in a world roughly analogous to our own, but with magic. People transport; computers are used for storing spells; children study Ars Magica. Thea is a minor celebrity; she’s the seventh child of two seventh children. Unfortunately, she can’t perform any magic at all. Her next-older brother, Frankie, messes up magic as often as he succeeds, but he can still DO magic. Thea’s father, in a last-ditch effort, calls in a really big favor and sends Thea somewhere — or somewhen — to study with someone who should be able to teach her magic. Will it work?
The book is actually split into two halves; in the first half, Thea is transported back in time to study with an Anasazi man. In the second half, Thea enrolls in a boarding school. The settings are vastly different; we’ve seen boarding schools, magical or otherwise, for many years. While we haven’t seen the Anasazi culture much, we have seen generic Southwestern Native American cultures, and so it retains enough familiarity to make readers comfortable. I enjoyed the settings; I thought the worldbuilding was perhaps the best part of the book. I thought each aspect of Thea’s world that was different from ours was well-described and engaging.
Thea as a character was surprisingly complex; she was a little spoiled, because she was the seventh child of two seventh children, but there was definitely enough sorrow and hardship in her life to counterbalance it. She had relatively few friends; her best friend in the book was her mother’s younger sister Zoe. In the boarding school, she finally finds a group of people she likes, and she is (socially) happy. These friends of hers are also interesting: Magpie, nee Catherine, is some sort of Pacific Northwestern Native American, but she cannot perform the ancestral magic. Tess and Terry are twins who are allergic to magic. Finally, for the first time, Thea is among her true peers.
In Thea’s world, there are also a few different kinds of nonhuman characters. It took me a while to figure out that they most likely came from other dimensions rather than other planets. The Alphiri and the Faele both physically resemble elves, but the Alphiri, at least, are nothing like them. The Faele seem to have some fairy-godparent-like capabilities, but they aren’t exactly Tolkien-esque.
The writing style on the book was perhaps the only part I did not find excellent. Alexander has quite a turn for poetic language, but sometimes her paragraph-long sentences did not quite match the intended audience for the book. These sentences are not in the dialogue, which was fine; they were in the narration. Again, individual parts of these sentences were lovely, and they were all grammatically correct, but the length was sometimes oppressive. I can’t imagine that fourteen-year-olds would find these more appealing than I do. For example:
Grimoires were temperamental books, sometimes with a life of their own, unpredictable and often dangerous; they were usually kept well apart from the main part of any library, but even so accidents happened every so often and the consequences could be dire.
Again, the story was lovely, and a nice introduction to Thea’s world. I’m very interested to read the next book in the trilogy (which I have on a shelf, quite nearby), and I’m sure I won’t be able to wait for book 3. This book comes recommended to readers who like interesting settings and vibrant characters, but who wouldn’t mind waiting a few months for book 3, and for whom short, choppy sentences aren’t a necessity. 4/5 stars.