I had the idea a couple of weeks ago to try to read all the books for the Cybil awards. So, I started requesting them from the library (so far I've requested three and received two). This was the first one I read. In fact, I may have been the first person to read this particular copy of the book from the library. The hard cover had a satisfying creak when I opened it. I hope other people pick it up.
I don't quite know what I expected. Maybe the title led me to think it might be vampires or something. I started it without even reading the back or the flap, and I think the library had placed the branch sticker over the label that indicated it was the first book in a trilogy. (The boy, however, read the back first, and then put it down because the first blurb was from Nancy Farmer, and he read a couple of books by her and was Not Impressed. Interesting how marketing fails. )
There are two non-concurrent storylines, and the chapters alternate.
One storyline happens far in the past from the other one. It concerns three people who are putting together a school of magic. The character Franklin belongs to Somiss, and the girl Sabira has a massive crush on Franklin. I read a review that said that Franklin and Somiss were friends, and that didn't make me feel like the reviewer had understood what they were reading. No, they are not friends. Franklin was sold to Somiss's father when he was three, which makes it a master/slave relationship. It struck me that Kathleen Duey must have a very interesting interior life, to create this particular relationship. Franklin is loyal to Somiss based not just on fear but also worship. Franklin clearly knows that Somiss has some flaws, but he's got some pretty big blinders on, and forgives way too much. But Franklin also has a great deal of influence over Somiss, which continues into the second storyline.
The second storyline concerns a student, Haph, who attends this school of magic that Franklin and Somiss, now very old men, run. It is a horrible place. I absolutely loved his tone when he said, on p. 81, "Only one of us would graduate. Obviously, it wasn't going to be me. What was going to happen to me?" The tone of dread was wonderful--the hunger, the despair. This is one book where the dream sequences and internal fantasy sequences really worked.
The tone reminded me of Megan Whalen Turner. this might have been because the voice was very young-feeling to me. When Haph described his getting up ritual, it involved washing up and taking a piss, which is something the boy would say, but probably neither of the adults in my house would. There were a few times the word crap was used, and shit, which I found refreshing, because it's boring when everything is sanitized all the time. In fact, the obsession with bodily functions seemed normal to me, for a character who was being forced to have an extremely structured, limited existence. His access to food was limited, so he obsessed about his bowels. So few authors go there. I liked it.
The characters and the world seemed really fleshed out for such a short book. Haph and Gerrard are from two extremes in their society. They have few points of commonality, and there's no explanation of, for example, where Gerrard learned to read. In the flashback sequence, Sabira teaches herself to read illicitly, because it's a forbidden skill for all except the rich.
You know, I'm nervous about recommending this book to some people. I knew right from the start that it was going to be emotionally draining. The scene in Chapter 3 (which you can find at http://www.kathleenduey.com/content/blogcategory/12/11/ set quite a tone. There are things in it that I keep coming back to -- the non-stop, ongoing horror of life at the school, where they are penalized for helping each other, and some of them can't seem to make food, the seemingly senseless torture of the street children by Somiss. I think there's an evil thing in that school. I wonder if that stone that gives them food is sucking the life force out of the nine-tenths of the class who don't graduate. I wonder how far from Sabira's home they find that stone, because I'm guessing that is going to have to be in book two or three.
For book 1 of a trilogy, I actually liked the finish. Both storylines came to a turn, but not an ending.