Receiving an ARC of The Storyspinner by Becky Wallace was exciting, because it promised high fantasy. For me, high fantasy is one of my literary comfort foods. Sometimes, though, you can mess up a comfort food. Mashed potatoes can glob together and become gluey. Meatloaf can fall apart. Lasagne may not set properly and then just splosh all over when you try to serve it. It's not the dish itself that's defective, but the execution. Similarly, while The Storyspinner follows a well-known high fantasy recipe--rescue the lost princess/Chosen One--it fails in execution.
The first thing I look for when a book calls itself high fantasy is the setting. It should be suitably exotic, but it's also fun to have ties to our reality. So, in Tolkien's novels, Middle-Earth could be any sort of pre-Roman Britain-type place, but that doesn't matter because it's got a varied geography and is populated with various fantastic creatures (orcs, elves, dwarves, etc.). I've never picked up The Hobbit and said to myself, "This is set in England."
I'm pretty sure that The Storyspinner is set in Brazil. When the nasty lordling sneaks pão de queijo from the cook, there's incessant talk of mango orchards, and characters have names like Jacaré and Leão, it sounds like Brazil to me! It's jarring to be tootling along in this fantasy world and then have a character start talking about foodstuffs by their Portuguese name! It's a fantasy novel! Make up words!
Anyway, so the story goes like this: Johanna is a Performer, a sort of traveling entertainer. Her whole family belongs to the Performers, and her father is not only a world-class acrobat, but he's a Storyspinner as well. This means that he tells stories so well that you almost forget the world around you as they are told. Unfortunately for Johanna, in the first chapter, her exceedingly talented father falls from his perch and dies. This causes the Performers to expel Johanna and her family from their ranks because ... reasons? I didn't particularly understand that part.
Anyway. Jacaré, Captain of the Elite Guard of Olinda (known outside his country as Keepers), has noticed a glitch in his magic crystal that he uses to track the heir to the throne who has been lost since her father died. Sorry, that was a long sentence, but there is a lot going on here. So, in the past, the King of
Because his magical crystal isn't working right, Jacaré barges into the Mages Council meeting and demands an explanation. This is much more dramatic than asking politely, as I would be wont to do with a mage. The reason the stone isn't working is because the guardian of the heir is dead, and she has been away for the Wall for too long. The mage who explains this is Amelia, "head of the Mage council because she was the most powerful magic wielder among the Keepers."
Logically, the most powerful person would be in charge. Why does this even need to be explained?
Jacaré decides to disobey a direct order from this Very Powerful Person and sneak over the border to find the princess. He brings some friends: Leão, who's related to Amelia but is much nicer, Tex, a disgraced Keeper, and his sister, Pira. I made it about halfway through the book and still hadn't figured out what exactly Tex was doing there except that he's supposed to be some sort of woo-woo expert tracker. Congratulations. Pira likes Leão. Pira dislikes her brother's command. Pira likes to Do Her Own Thing, which is totally NOT safe when you are traveling incognito. I didn't like Pira.
Meanwhile, in Santarem...
Johanna, now expelled from the Performers' Guild for having lost her father to an untimely and gruesome death, gathers food while her family lives in some wagons in the forest. There's this big kerfuffle about her shooting this deer and the lordlings of the land catch her. One, the Lord Rafael (Rafi) is a hot-headed misogynist whose first inclination is to attack Johanna and accuse her of poaching. Rafi's brother Dominic (Dom) is more level-headed and jovial. Uh-oh. I feel tremblings along the fault lines. It's a love triangle setup; I'm sure of it (but not until the next book, I think).
Rafi attacks Johanna, who is dressed as a boy. In this mystical land, it's not okay to beat up a lady poacher, so when Rafi and Dom realize Johanna is, in fact, female, they (Rafi) are in some deep trouble. They figure this out when they try to drag the "thief" back to be hanged. Rafi sees "Pink lips parted slightly in sleep. Loose laces exposed a long slender neck, the hard slant of a collarbone and a soft mound of ..."
Yes, the sentence actually ends in an ellipsis because saying "breasts" is obviously just too much to bear. Although I'm still wondering why it's a mound (singular). Does Johanna have only one breast?
Rafi and Dom take her back to their palace-type-place, where their mom scolds Rafi for being a twerp and just whaling on someone, and shuts him down for saying that he only did it because he didn't know the "poacher" was a girl. I kind of like their mom. To make some loooooong chapters a bit shorter, because he was in the wrong, Rafi has to be beaten as he beat Johanna. She, being a sensitive soul, stops the punishment. Rafi now owes her an even larger debt of honor, which he tries to fulfill by sending her lots of stuff.
Meanwhile, the Keepers, who have now entered Santarem, are doing a bang-up job of conducting a fruitless investigation. Pira rages, Jacaré broods, Leão blushes, and Tex ... I have no idea what Tex does.
I do not find this plot compellling, or full of intrigue, or spellbinding, or any of those things. It just is. And it bored me.
I also very much disliked the descriptions of women, as well as the obvious romantic lead's initial view of women.
- Pira is an excellent fighter and a fantastic Keeper, but watching her succeed makes Jacaré want to "teach her a lesson." Nice.
- The trekking Keepers come across a watchpoint whose soldiers have kidnapped a local girl and raped her to death. " 'Too late for the girl?' Tex asked as he surveyed the scene with casual distaste. 'Isn't it always?' [Jacaré said]" So you find a girl who's been abused beyond belief, and the reaction is, "Oh, same old same old!" This is repulsive.
- When Rafi sees Johanna in a dress, he undresses her again with his eyes. She is an object. "She wore blue silk that clung to her chest and hips, revealing narrow curves that didn't belong on any boy." She, in turn, finds his body "poetic." Gag me.
- Despite being beaten severely for his previous behavior, Rafi still thinks it's appropriate to react with violence to Johanna's behavior. "Rafi had never raised a hand against a woman--except by accident--but his fingers itched to slap the smug grin off her face." What does that mean, exactly? "Except by accident?" How do you "accidentally" hit a woman? Jerkwad
- Well, if he can't hit her, how about offering her his bed? He feels he's obviously doing her a giant favor by offering some Marvin Gaye-style getting it on. " 'You have needs, and I think I can take care of them.' " Ew.
- Johanna's reaction? "Lord Rafael unsettled her. It wasn't fear, exactly. She knew he wouldn't physically harm her, but there was something in the way that he looked at her that made her feel ... less." Okay, number one: he already physically harmed you. Number two: do not fall in love with someone who demeans you. Oh wait, we're already going down that road...
- ...because Johanna is soooooo sexy. She shows up at a ball given by Rafael's family to Perform, and Rafi notices that "her dress was tight through the chest and hips, flaring at her thighs. It gave her enough room to move, while still flattering her wasplike waist." What is Johanna, a Gibson Girl? "Wasplike waist?" I am mentally stabbing myself in the eyeballs right now. This dress also accentuates the "smooth scoops of flesh" on her chest. Breasts. They are called breasts, Becky Wallace. Say boobs! I don't care! I don't have "scoops of flesh" on my chest! It sounds like something you'd put on an ice cream cone.
This is not a good high fantasy, I'm sorry to say. It is a muddly mess of questing with strangely long-lived magical people saving the Lost Princess, who has scoops and mounds of flesh on her chest, which is alluring to the "I wouldn't harm a flea!" lordling who beats people up at the first opportunity. Healthy relationships all around!
I received an ARC of this from Edelweiss. Quotes may change.