October 12, 2017
(+++) UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
Even the Darkest Stars. By Heather Fawcett. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
An interesting world with less-interesting people is created by Heather Fawcett in this first book of a planned fantasy duology for young teenagers. Based very loosely on early attempts to climb Mount Everest, the story is set in a magic-permeated mountainous region where evil witches were defeated two centuries ago and small dragons are routinely domesticated so people can make use of their gently illuminated bellies (a nice touch, one of many intriguing details here). The protagonist here is 17-year-old Kamzin, a shaman-in-training who would rather be an explorer – like her mother, who died in an expedition that Kamzin and her older sister, Lusha, survived. Kamzin is not as good at magic as her friend Tem, who has a crush on her; and she tends to live in the shadow of Lusha, who is charming and can read the stars. Both Kamzin and Lusha have familiars – Kamzin’s is a small, mangy, mischievous fox named Ragtooth rather than anything spectacular (another nice touch).
The story takes quite a while to get going – in fact, it does not really pick up until three-quarters of the way through the book. But the interesting aspects of Fawcett’s fantasy world keep matters intriguing until then, at least for readers who accept expansive descriptions and a slower pace. The basic narrative involves the appearance in Kamzin’s village of the world’s most famous explorer, who happens to be 19 years old and super-cute, thus sowing the seeds of a fairly obvious love triangle. This Royal Explorer is named River Shara, and he is on a quest for a magical talisman. He initially chooses Lusha as his guide, but when she and the expedition’s official chronicler take off with half of River’s supplies in an attempt to complete the quest first, he settles on Kamzin – whose endurance and climbing ability turn out to be almost magically excellent. And he recruits Tem as well (no surprise there). Lusha and Kamzin are the only ones who know the way to the mysterious mountain called Raksha, which is where River must go. He explains to Kamzin that the emperor took away the power of the witches and bound it – but the spell is weakening. So he needs a talisman from the witches’ sky city atop Raksha to preserve and enhance the spell and prevent the massive destruction that will surely occur if the witches regain their former power.
So says River, but Kamzin discovers that things are not necessarily quite so black-and-white. She has plenty of time to think matters through during the suitably harrowing journey to Raksha, with the mountainous terrain being well-described by Fawcett in a manner that mixes real-world elements (such as the characters’ Nepalese coats) with made-up ones (such as the fiangul monsters, travelers lost in blizzards and now possessed by winged spirits). Kamzin persists on the dangerous mission despite increasing worries about its perils, partly because of sibling rivalry and partly because she genuinely believes that Lusha will not survive unless Kamzin somehow comes to her aid. The story meanders quite a bit, especially in the middle of the book, and when a plot twist sets things in motion in the latter part of the narrative, it is a rather obvious one – but welcome for the way it causes the action to pick up dramatically. There is little physical description of human characters and, as a result, not very much on a human scale with which readers will be able to identify, beyond the obvious sibling and romantic elements. But the splendors and terrors of the world, the harrowing journey to the never-before-climbed mountain, and the mixture of realistic and fantastic elements make Even the Darkest Stars an attractive genre entry.