I write this review from an ARC I won from Tor last fall just before the release of the book (though it didn’t come until after the book was published, so I felt no rush to review). I know that from an ARC I can’t critique the random grammatical mistakes or even some of the phrasing, but I highly doubt any major things were changed in the last draft, so I feel that this review should reflect the finished copy.
The Faerie Ring centers on Tara, known to all as Tiki, an orphan in Victorian London who has made her home with four other lost children picking pockets to fill their mouths. When escaping a drunk Scot who caught her picking his pocket, Tiki jumps on the back of a cab and fall asleep, only waking when the carriage stops and she discovers that she is outside a large mansion. The smells of the open kitchen door beckon her inside where she manages to steal some bread and cheese while a feast is being prepared, but not before being caught and making a run through the lush halls of the mansion to hide. While hiding, Tiki discovers a beautiful ring that entrances her so much that she steals it without knowing that not only has she stolen from Queen Victoria herself, but she has also set off a centuries-old feud between the faeries and the Royals.
Tiki (whose name so closely resembles the author’s that it makes it a bit distracting) has several interesting qualities, one of them being that she constantly dresses as a boy to pick pockets. I suppose because a lone boy would be bothered far less than a lone girl it makes sense for a girl struggling in 1870’s London, but I cannot remember Hamilton ever explaining that point. Tiki grew up in a middle class home where she learned proper etiquette and developed a thirst for reading and learning, but her parents’ death forced her out on the streets to fend for herself. She guards her adopted family of orphans with great care and trusts no one outside of it. With all of that, she also bears a remarkable Celtic birthmark on her wrist. All of these qualities should combine to make Tiki a much more interesting protagonist than what she actually turns out to be.
Perhaps the biggest fault here is not the story itself but the lack of depth. As I was reading the book, I was constantly reminded of the sorts of stories children make up (myself included) or beginning authors might scribble down in their teens before they come up with something far more interesting. Motivations felt more like plot devices, right down to Tiki’s decision to steal the ring in the first place. Any mention of the poor ill four-year-old Clara felt more of a ploy to garner sympathy for the kids than to actually add depth to Tiki’s personality. Things happened because they needed to in order to keep the story going, but most of the transitions lacked explanation and reason (SPOILER For instance when Prince Leo learns the ring is still in Buckingham Palace, why did he not just have staff turn the place upside down looking for it, or look for it himself?)
While the plot definitely improves once the action gets going, Hamilton does not know how to navigate her desire to have a fairy store entwined with real Victorian lives. Instead of weaving together the sad orphans’ tales and the stolen ring storyline, it jumped as if Hamilton had no idea how to make them connect. So instead, a few days passed. Or another section started, with little adjustment. It is jarring and does seem to improve, or I also could have just stopped noticing it as much as I went through.
The book also abounded in British cliches; Hamilton even used the phrase “A thousand times yes.” I thought I was going to gag, especially due to its context.
All in all, unless you have a penchant for YA fae fantasy, I would give this one a miss. Hamilton researched her historical setting, but she forgot to listen to her characters when she was writing the book.
Special Note: There will of course be a sequel because this was a YA fantasy book, and the first two chapters are available on Hamilton’s website. I decided to read them to see if her writing had improved. No. She opens the book with “The killer walked boldly down the corridor of the Summer Court.” I heard Carol screaming in my head “Show, don’t tell! No -ly words allowed!”
I have to say that I went into this book with high hopes. I have read a few of Werlin’s books, and her other Fae installment, Impossible, was pretty amazing. So I was disappointed when the beginning of this book fell pretty flat.
Centered around Phoebe Rothschild, the book opens when Phoebe is just starting seventh grade. She and her friends mock the new girl in school, Mallory. But something inside Phoebe wants to help Mallory, and so Phoebe befriends Mallory. Soon the two become as close as sisters. Phoebe’s own family is wealthy and influential, and when she discovers Mallory’s mother is mentally unstable, they do all they can to help Phoebe’s new friend. The novel fast-forwards four years, to when the girls are juniors in high school. Mallory confesses to Phoebe that she has a brother that she never mentioned, and when Ryland arrives, he captivates Phoebe. With a strange hold over his sister’s friend, Ryland begins to manipulate Phoebe into believing less of herself until it is too late.
I’m not spoiling anything in the story to tell you that Mallory and Ryland are fae. We don’t learn what they want with Phoebe exactly until later on in the novel, but we know that they must force Phoebe to do or say something. We know this from the beginning because Werlin intersperses conversations with the faerie queen between the main events of the novel. It keeps the reader too informed. As someone who wants to write, I know the struggles you face when shaping a story. What to tell and when can tip the balance for or against you, and here, over-sharing is definitely a detriment. Though the novel is told in 3rd person, Phoebe is our main narrator, as we see the story mostly through her eyes. Thus, these conversations where she is not present takes you out of her story and out of her anxiety. We know from the beginning that Mallory is not who she says she is, and so there is no mystery to her motivations, not really. We may not understand the whole thing, but we know too much to exist alongside our MC (main character). It’s jarring, and it cuts out the suspense that could have been there.
The other major problem I had with this book was the voice. It is a struggle for an author to write a character from a young to slightly older age difference, but it is important that you are capable if you are going to attempt it. We assume Phoebe is around 13-14 when the novel opens, and yet, her voice is far too adult. She wants to protect Mallory and act like a mother to the girl. While Mallory seems scared and timid, Phoebe feels almost too sure of herself in some ways, too settled on what she will do. Maybe Werlin was trying to show Phoebe’s wealth and privilege through her voice, but all it did was make me almost shut the book. (This is why writers like Carol are so wonderful to find – the narration is extremely important to keep you in the story and reading.) I honestly only kept reading because of the plot – at the beginning of the book I did not care for the characters at all.
I was trying to find something nice to say about the book when I was reading, and I thought that the MC having asthma was pretty cool. Not cool for her, but cool for an inhaler-owner like myself. It was also a fairly accurate portrayal, so it gave me something to relate to.
When we flash forward (finally), the story does get better. The voice fits an 18 year-old Phoebe far better than it did previously. My gripe here though was that Phoebe was supposed to be a junior in high school, at 18. Did she flunk a grade? Start kindergarten late? It did not make sense to have her that age, other than to keep her away from college worries and old enough to date the supposedly 24 year-old brother Ryland when he comes along. Ryland, by the way, is the exact picture of an emotionally abusive boyfriend. Just enough affection to keep the girlfriend, but enough criticism to work her down so that she becomes dependent upon him. I am glad that Phoebe realizes her revulsion of him later, but watching her date him was all kinds of awful.
The interesting thing is that Mallory becomes our focus. She is the absorbing character, the one we start to feel for, and the one that we want to understand. When Phoebe finally reclaims her own story, I am not sure if it was all by design or not. I honestly don’t think so. Mallory was simply the more interesting character, and so Werlin led us to her and neglected the MC’s personality for awhile. Since the whole point of the story is supposed to be Phoebe wondering about ordinary versus extraordinary, and what her own worth is, the unintentional device sort of works. Except that it feels flawed.
The crazy mother wasn’t well-written, but there was some reason for that. We know from the beginning that Mallory and the fae are suppressing her, keeping her calm so that she will cover for Mallory but not question her dead daughter’s reappearance. But the picture we are given is never real or deep – it’s a very shallow version that made me wonder why Werlin bothered with the mother at all. I know that Werlin can do better, because Impossible has a very well-written crazy mom.
I know that it sounds like I did not like this book. I actually did, to some extent. It was a fun read if you are not reading it critically, and it raises some very interesting ideas about love and how our self-worth can be instilled in us from birth. However, with Werlin’s previous book being so good, this one just fell flat for me. The plot was interesting, and I did read it quickly once we had flashed forward, but that was more about finding out why then anything else.
And here, because I am going to try it out, we implement the rating system:
This book was not recommended to me, but rather one that had intrigued me before. It’s a long history that involves seeing the title when I was in a bookshop in Scotland, but not having the money to buy it. I then saw it in another bookshop, but needed to keep my physical book-buying to a minimum since I was moving back to the States soon after. A couple of months ago, I noticed it again in Borders, but this time was not entirely sure it was the book that had tickled my fancy, since the American cover was different and the story did not sound quite right. So I went for another title instead (which ended up being the wrong one and a third in the series). But, with Borders’ going-out-of-business sale, I finally nabbed a copy. Actually, a friend of mine and I got the last copy in the store. (More on the Borders closure later.)
It took me a few days to get this read, but overall it was a pretty fun read. It’s a YA novel, fantasy focusing on the Fae and alchemy. That combination was really the initial attraction for me. Let me go off on the customary (and necessary) plot ramble. The main character is Donna Underwood, a 17 year-old girl with iron and silver woven into her arms. She was injured by a Skriker (an elvish hell-hound) as a child, and the Skriker burned her arms badly. During the same attack, her father was killed and shortly after her mother driven crazy. Donna wears gloves to hide her unusual tattoos, lives with her aunt, takes alchemical lessons from the local group, and has one friend named Navin. Set in a suburb of Boston, Donna fears the wood-elves escape from a local wood. She meets and falls for a boy named Xan, himself half-fae who was imprisoned and tortured by the wood-elves as a child. When the wood-elves kidnap Navin, she must do whatever she can to save him.
Like I said, the book itself is pretty interesting and a rather fun read. I was a bit disappointed to realize that it is going to have a sequel (though what book doesn’t in today’s world?). I’m not saying the sequel isn’t warranted. You do leave plenty of questions unanswered by the end of the book, but I was rather hoping that I had picked up a book that would not require the purchase of another. But if there turns out to be a love triangle in the sequel, I will get a bit upset. All YA novels have love triangles anymore.
Back to the point of the discussion. The Iron Witch does differ from a lot of current fae novels – Donna actually exists as their enemy, and her relationship with Xan would certainly raise a few eyebrows when people finally figure it out. I also liked that Donna was not very interested in the magic of the alchemists, even though she had seen it work. She wants to be normal, not to embrace the purpose for which she was raised. No sides in the book are inherently right, either. Mahoney does a great job of building up the distrust of the alchemists, showing all sides to both Donna and the reader. The end of the book does not come down to good and evil, but more a judgement of which side is less wrong.
I do wish that this book had been in first person, however. Written in third-person limited, we were basically inside Donna’s head anyway. We saw her thoughts, knew her feelings, and went even deeper into her thinking with the journal entries throughout the book. What I did not understand was why not place it in first-person to begin with? (I just ended a sentence with a preposition!) We would have only gained from the switch in point-of-view, especially because we never once see from another character’s POV. Besides, with the diary entries and the closeness we get with Donna, it sort of feels like we are there anyway. It is actually grating when you read a third-person pronoun. So, for the sequel, she can just switch. Haha.
I guess the final assessment is that I did like this book, but it did lack a certain depth that really makes you care about the outcome. I was pulled along the way and intrigued, and I will read the sequel(s?), but I don’t think that it will stick with me as other books have done. Although, sometimes you want that from a novel.