Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Spell of Sisterhood: Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

Cate Cahill made a promise.  She promised her dying mother that she would protect her sisters--no matter what.  The task would be a lot easier however if their family didn't have quite so many dangerous secrets.  Their small New England town already finds the Cahill sisters' over-education and reclusive behaviors suspicious but if anyone were to discover that the three girls are honest to goodness witches, their lives would be over.  The priests of the Brotherhood are rounding up more and more girls accused of witchcraft to be sent away to the asylum and their nosy neighbor has convinced their absent father to hire a governess.  

As if that weren't enough to preoccupy Cate, her seventeenth birthday is fast approaching, which means that in just a few months Cate will have to decide if she's going to get married or join the Sisterhood.  Neither option seems appealing right now, especially since both might separate her from her sisters.  

Then the discovery of her mother's diary throws Cate's world even more off balance: it turns out that being witches isn't the Cahill girls' biggest secret.  Now Cate must race to discover the truth about her family's destiny before powerful forces find ways to use her or her sisters for their own interests and in the process perhaps finally take the time to discover the desires of her own heart.

I didn't quite know what to expect from Born Wicked.  I heard pretty good buzz and the brief publicity summaries sounded interesting but I still didn't have a clear picture of its particular hook or genre.  So I started reading without many preconceived ideas or expectations.  The story begins a little slowly but I was quickly pulled into Cate's world.  As teenager facing the transition into adulthood and a sudden, unusual influx of responsibilities, Cate will be a familiar figure to many readers, both young and old.  She tries so hard to balance and protect her sisters' safety and happiness but she's also forced herself to ignore her own desires and potential.  But Cate is limited by more than her own family responsibilities and worries; she lives in society where women's power and independence have been extremely curtailed by a male dominated religious order led by the Brotherhood priests.

The world imagined by Jessica Spotswood is one of the highlights of the novel.  She seeds the information about the society and history into the narrative, allowing the full picture to emerge gradually and through the characters' pertinent experiences.  This method, as usual, works well and avoids weighing down the pace of the story with too lengthy descriptions of traditions or historical events.  My only problem was that I found the fictional world so intriguing that I keep wanting more detail!  Born Wicked takes place in an alternative universe in which witches and magic truly exist and the United States began when witches left other areas of the world to avoid persecution and colonized the eastern coast of the current U.S.  As a result, the population is even more ethnically and racially diverse.  However, the religious Brotherhood gained influence and wrested control from the female-run  Daughters of Persephone; now, women must either get married or join the female monastic branch of the Brotherhood, in order to control their potential evil.

However, it was not just the intriguing setting and the strong protagonist that drew me into this novel.  The supporting characters and the relationships between the characters are well drawn; the complicated relationship between the three sisters is especially realistic in its portrayal.  The plot's mysteries and tension grow increasingly exciting as the story moves forward and the novel's pacing pulls the reader in quickly.  The romance is sweet and swoon-worthy; Cate's understanding of her own romantic and sexual desires emerges naturally and her realizations happen as part of her larger awakenings about her world, her magical abilities, and her options for the future.  The tension reaches a dramatic peak near the novel's conclusion that will leave readers eager for the next installment of Cate's tale.

I would recommend Born Wicked to readers who enjoy supernatural or paranormal tales (especially those with witches) and fantasy, especially historical fantasy.  It might pair well with other historical fantasy novels such as A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce and The Faerie Ring by Kiki Hamilton or with fantasy novels depicting similar family situations (Entwined by Heather Dixon springs to mind).


Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Complex Cowgirl Comes of Age: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

The moment twelve year old Cameron Post learns that her parents have been killed in a car accident, her initial reaction is relief: relief that now they will never find out that only a few hours ago she was kissing her best friend Irene.   Somehow the two seemingly unconnected events become intertwined as they mark the simultaneous moment when everything in Cameron's life shifts forever.  Her beloved parents are dead and her old fashioned grandmother & her Christian evangelical aunt become her guardians.  And while Cameron & Irene's friendship falls apart, Cameron can't forget how right it felt to be kissing a girl.  A few year later and Cam has survived her grief and started to quietly figure out the girl she's becoming when the arrival of beautiful cowgirl Coley Taylor throws her tenuously balanced world out of whack.

 After reading a variety of reviews, including an extremely positive one by great YA lit author and blogger Malinda Lo, I was highly curious and eager to read this coming of age novel from debut author Emily M. Danforth.  Happily, my high expectations were far from disappointed.  Miseducation is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, and hopeful story about girl stumbling her way through adolescence and into the brave new world of adulthood.  Every piece of Cameron's life growing up in Miles City, Minnesota during late 1980s and early 1990s comes to life through Danforth's evocative and detailed prose.  From the first page, the reader is fully immersed in the sounds, smells, images, and emotions buzzing through Cam's external and internal worlds.  Danforth excels at capturing moments and moods; the whole novel evokes the experience of looking through a series of beautiful, spare photographs--sepia toned with slightly curled up edges.

Cam is a wonderfully developed character with fresh and unique voice.  She is perceptive, sarcastic, defensive, sensitive, and passionate;  I loved her from the novel's opening chapter and found myself completely absorbed in her story, cheering for her fiercely the whole time.  The supporting cast of characters are all equally well crafted but it's Cam's story through and through.

While the Miseducation has been marketed as a young adult novel, it reads more like adult fiction with a highly authentic adolescent protagonist and narrator.  This fact can be viewed as both an advantage and a disadvantage.  The novel might be more challenging to promote to a mass audience of teen readers or it might instead simply have a great deal of crossover appeal to adult audiences.  However, I feel sure that for the right readers--both teens and adults--Miseducation's complex characters, rich story, and emotional depth will resonate powerfully.