Ordinarily I don’t like fantasy, unless the author is Maggie Stiefvater, Melina Marchetta, or Kelley Armstrong. They know how to make stories so good, you forget you decided not to like fantasy.
Moria and Ashyn are 16-year-old twins in the village of Edgewood, which abuts The Forest of the Dead, a place thick with spiritual energy from the dead criminals who have been exiled there. Moria and Ashyn have been born with the ability to communicate with spirits, and thus Moria has become a “Keeper” and Ashyn is a “Seeker,” one of four such pairs of specially endowed twins in the Empire. Ancestral Spirits guide and direct them.
The main role of the Keeper and Seeker is to contact the angry spirits of the exiles each year on the night where the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest, in order to help bring them rest and peace. Each of the girls is aided by a special beast. Moria has a Daigo, a wildcat, and Ashyn has Tova, a hound. It is thought that the spirits of former warriors reside in the beasts.
Moira and Ashyn were not allowed to perform their duties until they turned sixteen, but now it is time. Ashyn is nervous, but Moria assures her it will be fine:
“Nothing ever goes wrong, Ash. If it did, we’d hear the stories. The only thing people love more than a good story is a bad one. Tales of tragedy and woe and bloody entrails, strung like ribbons, decorating the battlefields.”
But this time, something does go very wrong, and the consequences are catastrophic for the village. The girls must travel to the Capital to seek help.
Moria, unable to find Ashyn, heads out to appeal to the Emperor, accompanied by the warrior Gavril Kitsune. Ashyn also travels to the Capital, along with Ronan, an exiled criminal who miraculously has survived The Forest of the Dead. The dangers for the four of them are severe, and it is not clear who among them will survive their mission.
Discussion: Kelley Armstrong creates great characters. They are multi-dimensional and – I know this sounds trite, but the females are brave yet vulnerable, and the males strong yet tender. (You’d think this would presage a lot of ear tucks, but there was nary a one. There was, however, a great scene in which one of the boys braids the hair of one of the girls.)
The twins are devoted to each other and connected to one another in many ways, and yet they are quite distinct personalities. Each is appealing in her own way, and each has very distinctive insecurities and defenses.
The underlying conceit – that the scary stories told by Moria to entertain the kids of her village come true through sorcery, is cleverly done, and inspires some entertaining conversation among the characters on what is real, what is superstition, and what can never be known.
Kelley adopts some standard YA tropes, but she manages to make them fresh and entertaining. More importantly, she also invokes the eternally entertaining themes of great epic sagas – characters both heroic and tragic, a battle of huge proportions, and a difficult quest with life-threatening struggles requiring extraordinary feats of bravery and prowess.
Evaluation: I think I may be biased in favor of works by Kelley Armstrong because it seems we share the same notions about what characters should be like; what constitutes dialogue that is both entertaining and realistic; and what makes a story memorable. (Too bad only one of us can write, and it isn’t I.) I enjoyed this a great deal, but be aware, it is only the first of a series.
Published by HarperCollins, 2014