Goodreads summary: Sydelle Mirabil is living proof that, with a single drop of rain, a life can be changed forever. Tucked away in the farthest reaches of the kingdom, her dusty village has suffered under the weight of a strangely persistent drought. That is, of course, until a wizard wanders into town and brings the rain with him.
In return for this gift, Wayland North is offered any reward he desires—and no one is more surprised than Sydelle when, without any explanation, he chooses her. Taken from her home, Sydelle hardly needs encouragement to find reasons to dislike North. He drinks too much and bathes too little, and if that isn’t enough to drive her to madness, North rarely even uses the magic he takes such pride in possessing. Yet, it’s not long before she realizes there’s something strange about the wizard, who is as fiercely protective of her as he is secretive about a curse that turns his limbs a sinister shade of black and leaves him breathless with agony. Unfortunately, there is never a chance for her to seek answers.
Along with the strangely powerful quakes and storms that trace their path across the kingdom, other wizards begin to take an inexplicable interest in her as well, resulting in a series of deadly duels. Against a backdrop of war and uncertainty, Sydelle is faced with the growing awareness that these events aren’t as random as she had believed—that no curse, not even that of Wayland North, is quite as terrible as the one she herself may carry.
I picked up this book for two reasons: 1. I couldn’t figure out how I felt about the cover. It totally attracted my attention with the rich colors, but there’s just something off about the girl’s face, so I couldn’t stop staring at it and trying to figure out what it is. I’m still not sure. Something with the eye? Something about the perspective? Is it just too air-brushed? Is it just me? 2. I was looking for something kind of like Graceling (a wish-fulfilling romantic fantasy with lots of suspense), and this looked to fit the bill.
I really liked this book, and I read it in almost one sitting. I stayed up super late because I didn’t want to put it down, but finally my eyes were too blurry and I had to go to bed, so I was definitely absorbed in the story. It’s a good fit for fans of Graceling — it’s not as well written or well plotted, and the two lead characters are not as endearing (though I liked them both enough to care about them), but it has the same structure and a similarly happy ending, and both have a unique spin on how magic works and is used by the characters.
Like Graceling, the hero and heroine meet in a memorable way; wind up on a quest together because of a common goal; bicker and distrust each other; and gradually grow to appreciate each other and fall in love. Their relationship is threatened by an outside force (an enemy with powers of mental manipulation) and a more personal force (a Big Secret the hero has that emotionally hurts the heroine and comes across to her as a betrayal). It’s not a Graceling retread, though, by any means. I keep mentioning the similarity because, for me, this book fills the same niche in my reading interests. It has a lot of suspense, as Sydelle and North attempt to avert a war while dodging an evil wizard with a personal grudge, a couple strong characters, and enough romance for me to feel all happy but not so much that I started rolling my eyes. This is the same niche that Other, by Karen Kincy, filled, for example.
The world-building is decent. A lot of its uniqueness has to do with magic use – wizards are born with magic and wield talismans that are as specific to them as the type of magic they practice. Magic is divided into types that correspond with a color and an element, and most wizards specialize in a type. North, who uses colored cloaks to do his magic, is good at all types (for example, his black cloak enables twisting, a kind of teleportation, and he has several other cloaks for other magics), but the curse he’s afflicted hampers his powers. Sydelle can mend his cloaks, which is considered a small magic but nevertheless a rare and essential one for North. I appreciated the details that went into how North uses his cloaks and how Sydelle ultimately decides to use her gift in helping him come up with better ways. However, I never got a larger sense of place, so it’s as if North and Sydelle are being followed by a spotlight that illuminates what’s around them (a town they travel to, the road they’re on, the forest around them, the castle they’re in, etc.) but not enough to provide context.
What I mostly enjoyed about this book are the characters, their relationship, and discovering the answers to all the questions I had. At first, the mysteries are handled with almost too much subtlety, as North knows everything but refuses to say, but I enjoy secretive characters. Some readers may find North frustrating — he is very distant and closed, and it takes a long time for Sydelle (and thus, us, the readers) to learn anything about him except that he is kind of obnoxious and has no sense of direction and way too many secrets — but I think it is very hard to do secretive characters well, and I think Bracken made him likable despite his flaws. The plot grows rather convoluted, but not so much that I had trouble following — instead, it kept me wondering what was going to happen next.
All the essential plot lines are tied up by the end (and quite nicely), but one important one is left hanging, so I wonder if there will eventually be a sequel. I think Bracken is definitely a new author to watch, and I’ll be interested in her next novel, whatever it is.