My Rating: 4.0 / 5
Winner: Romantic Times Book Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel 2009
Centuries ago the Aetherials ventured from their worlds in the Spiral to move amongst us. At first they showed their true forms, part animal or winged, but they soon learnt to appear human, and so the memories of animal-headed gods and winged angels became myths and folklore. In modern England, the small village of Cloudcroft is home to a number of Aetherials, including Lawrence Wilder, the Gatekeeper, who controls the Gates to the Otherworld. There are many small Gates spread all over the Earth, but every seven years, on the Night of the Summer Stars, all adult Aetherials gather at Freya’s Crown, near Cloudcroft, to travel through the main Gates to reconnect with the essential energy of their home realms. However, this time, Lawrence detects a great danger in the Otherworld that threatens to travel through the Gates and destroy all the Aetherials on Earth, so he seals all of them and refuses to reopen any of them for any reason. As the years pass, the young Aetherials cannot take part in the usual rite of passage in the Otherworld and struggle with the decision: to remain true to Aetherial culture, or to reject it and become as human as possible. Ugly family secrets and personal feuds bubble to the surface as the Gates remain closed and the need to reclaim their connection with the Spiral becomes a necessity to all the Aethereals, young and old.
We follow the families of young Aetherials Rosie Fox and Sam Wilder as they grow to adulthood amongst their Earth-bound families. Rosie seems to have the perfect home and family, although her elder brother, Matt, is domineering and distrustful of their Aetherial heritage. She and younger brother, Lucas, are more intrigued by their unusual abilities, such as their perception of the parallel Dusklands, which are like a psychedelic version of Earth. Sam is a delinquent who cannot seem to stay out of trouble, although his motives are often protective of his younger brother, Jon. Over the following years Matt rejects everything Aetherial as he takes a human wife, the mouse-like Faith, while Jon and Lucas attempt to reopen the Gates by using a combination of drugs. Rosie is desperately in love with Jon, but he is seemingly unaware of her existence and she finally agrees to marry Alastair, a human friend of Matt’s. However, bad boy Sam has always been fixated with her and as the wedding approaches she is hopelessly drawn to him. When a terrible accident occurs, Rosie and Sam must journey into the Otherworld to defeat the Evil lurking there in order to save themselves and their families.
I have read quite a lot of fantasy, and would count myself as a fan of the genre, so I was looking forward to this unusual version of the fairy / elf world. The Aetherials’ Spiral, their history and culture are fascinating, as are the parallel versions of Earth that they can access. However, I felt that we spent far too little time exploring that aspect of the story. Instead, most of the book is given over to the family dramas that surround the main characters, which I found a little disappointing. The first half to two-thirds of the book was slow and got bogged down in exploring the family relationships and dynamics, with the fantasy elements really pushed to the background. However, once the transition to the Otherworld occurred, and the fantasy aspects came to the fore, the pace increased and the book became much more successful. Unfortunately, as Liviu Suciu at Fantasy Book Critic points out, even here the world building could have been far more detailed, and I hope that the second book in the series spends much more time exploring this fascinating world.
The main characters are very three dimensional, though not necessarily very likeable. Many of the characters have secrets and do not behave honestly with their friends and family, which leads to a great deal of drama and tension, but makes it difficult to sympathize with them. This becomes a major problem when they are placed in danger and we need to care about them and their survival. Not that the human characters are any less dysfunctional. In fact, the two most destructive characters in the book are humans, bringing abusive incest and homicidal psychopathy to the party, so in some regards the Aetherials are far more sympathetic. However, infidelity is a recurring motif, as is self-deception, so it seems the author has a fascination with the lies we tell one-another and ourselves. Although there are a lot of clichéd Romantic Fiction aspects here, I do have to agree with Sarah at Bookworm Blues: the more melodramatic romantic plot points did not have me rolling my eyes and reaching for my sick bucket. The characters are so well drawn that their actions are totally believable, in a “Oh no! Don’t do that!” kind of way.
One aspect of this book that I really loved was the way in which the various houses and buildings have their own life force and presence. The Foxes’ home is warm and inviting, which seems to reflect the family’s connection to the earth magic of their particular Otherworld realm. The fact that the house can change and shift to provide what the characters need is almost more fantastical than the whole ‘alien elves living amongst us’ idea. We see this to much greater effect in the Wilder house. Being of the air realm, these characters are much colder and cerebral, with Lawrence, in particular, having a kind of obsessional self-containment that borders on madness. His house has a cold menace that is truly chilling and makes the unpleasant secrets that are revealed there even more unbearable. The disturbing images that surround the characters in prison reminded me of Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of Hell, making me wonder how any Aetherial could survive an extended time in such an environment without losing their mind.
I really wanted to love this book as much as Kristen at Fantasy Cafe, and I did appreciate the wonderful writing and characterization, but I wanted more fantasy and less family angst in this ‘Fantasy’ title.