Every so often you come across a book that takes an established genre, gives it a thorough shake and tips it on its head – and this is what Houghton has done to epic fantasy…
Some battles bleed so much, and for so long, that the earth never truly forgets their dead. Some battles are born of oppression, and some of greed, and some simply because it was written in the stars. Three sisters—Charlemagne, Cairo and Pendragon Agonistes—are sent from America to England to live with their eccentric grandparents after their mother disappears and their father falls to pieces. But before the girls have time to find their feet, Charlemagne is married off to a dead man, Penny takes a nap and wakes up as a boy, and Cairo is swept into a dangerous romance with a man who wants her for more than her considerable charm. With the girls wrapped up in a conflict they barely understand, they don’t notice that their grandmother is transforming, or that the two demigod assassins who took their mother are now coming for them—if one of them can get over his crisis of conscience.
This is a portal world story where a deadly war on one world bleeds into the lives of a family struggling to rebuild their shattered existence on another world. We regularly read tales of dreadful battles where whole races are wiped out in epic fantasy tales, except for a desperate remnant. This story isn’t really about that – this is more about the aftermath, when those wars have slipped into history. Except in this case, the war isn’t done and forces beyond these three sisters are determined to shape their destinies.
I loved it. Family dynamics within speculative fiction always grabs me and when these three sisters go to live with their grandparents, I was completely hooked by the building sense of something radically wrong and getting worse. The flashbacks the girls experience are all very clear and deftly handled and Houghton’s depiction of the three very different characters all coping in their own way worked well. He doesn’t sentimentalise them – something that would have been easy to do – and while the writing is slightly heightened in the manner of epics, it works well. I also like the way the magical element works. In Houghton’s world, whenever power is wielded there is a price and all too often the price is far too high. There were moments when I was winded at who got damaged and who died… But that surely made me pay attention for the duration.
The only major concern I have is that this book has ended on something of a cliffhanger and I’m really, really hoping Houghton has plans to write a sequel. This disturbing, rich and original world is one I’m desperate to visit again.