Sixteen-year-old Canny Mochrie’s vacation takes a turn when she stumbles upon a mysterious and enchanting valley, occupied almost entirely by children who can perform a special type of magic that tells things how to be stronger and better than they already are. As Canny studies the magic more carefully, she realizes that she not only understands it–she can perform the magic, too, so well that it feels like it has always been a part of her. With the help of an alluring seventeen-year-old boy who is held hostage by a spell that is now more powerful than the people who first placed it, Canny figures out the secrets of this valley and of her own past.
You guys. I loved this. This was like a book that was written specifically for me. When I requested this one, I didn’t know it was set in the Dreamhunter universe, so there are a few things I didn’t understand (though I intend to read that series soon), but that didn’t take anything away from the book for me. The story is slow to unfold (at 17%, I have a note saying, “still no clue how magic works, but unfolding nicely”), but I liked Canny and I liked discovering things as she did. She has a very methodical brain, and she spends a lot of time in the beginning figuring things out, alone. I saw almost nothing coming. Knox’s writing makes up for any pacing issues, in my opinion. I was never ever bored. The continuity of the plot was great, and many confusing scenes are made clear throughout the novel. Knox included really lush descriptions of Zarene Valley, and the portrayal of emotions was really believable and done really well. Though this novel takes place in post-WWII society, there are women in prominent leadership roles, though sexism still seems to exist along with beauty norms and standards.
There are a few main characters and I’ll detail them a little here. We have Canny (also known as Agnes and Akanesi), a mathematics genius, who has a paralyzed face. Her story is the one we follow closest. She’s sixteen. She seems almost on the autism spectrum, but I think that’s sort of like how all the demigods in Percy Jackson have dyslexia and ADHD. They’re supposed to be reading Greek, not English. Canny is supposed to be doing magic. Next, there’s Sisema, Canny’s formidable mother. She’s a war hero and very haughty, and Canny finds her endlessly embarrassing. She’s married to the Professor, who’s an atheist, a socialist, and is very widely admired. I appreciated the cultural implications of that. I quite liked Sisema. Then, there’s Sholto, Canny’s stepbrother. Strange, Canny-related things happen to him, but he’s good at ignoring them. Susan is Sholto’s girlfriend, and I think she had the most character growth out of anyone. She started out very snotty to Canny and in the end, they became good friends. I think Sholto grows some as well though. Finally, we have the Zarenes: Lealand, Iris, Cyrus, and Ghislain. Lealand and Ghislain are brothers, cousins to Cyrus and Iris, also siblings. Cyrus is a beekeeper and Ghislain lives in a house at the top of Terminal Hill.
Sholto is out recording accounts of survivors of a mine collapse. When the party ends up in Zarene Valley, weird things start happening, and Sholto discovers the Lealand and Cyrus are also survivors. Sholto sets about interviewing them, all while Canny is discovering magic. (By 1/3 of the way through, magic starts becoming clearer.) We learn more about the Zarene Valley and its troubles with magic and what happens to magic workers when they leave. The mystery surrounding the Zarenes was very interesting partly because we are kept mostly in the dark, as this is Canny’s story and we learn things as she does. We get bits and pieces from Sholto and Ghislain as well. Ghislain turns out to be the love interest, which at first I thought was weird, because Canny seemed so asexual, but I ended up loving their story. This story also reminded me how much I love third person POV. I get tired of first person sometimes.
Iris, Lealand, and Cyrus are made out to be the villains, but Ghislain starts looking a little crazy in the last quarter of the novel. His story, and the whole story in general, as I said above, unfolds very slowly, and I loved getting new bits and pieces of it as I went along. Ghislain didn’t make the best first impression what with his tying Canny up, but I sort of forgave him, because of his circumstances. When you get to this point though, Ghislain starts to seem sinister, like he’s trying to absorb Canny and never let her out. Canny is infatuated though, and I still liked the love story at this point. The way Ghislain looked at the future reminded me of Edward Cullen: “once she leaves me, I can truly die.” That was sort of an insane thing to put forth in Twilight, but it seems less insane here, though still a little overwrought. Ghislain is in love with Canny though, that much is true, and I just felt for him so much at the end of the novel. Ghislain, I forgive you.
So as you can tell, this was just an amazing book to me, and here I want to quote two things that really stood out to me:
Canny’s thoughts on Shakespeare’s sonnets: “youth is fleeting and you’d better get married and have kids and copy the beauty you own because the world owns it too.” I really love “the beauty you own,” the idea that beauty is something one possesses, controls. I also like the idea that the world will eventually own our beauty as well, when our bodies decompose and become earth once more.
Susan: “people change over time and are more a ‘series of identities than a person.'” In my experience, nothing is more true than that.