Triplet princesses (or more accurately, earl’s daughters) are kidnapped from their securely warded home and then dumped in a scary underground world called the Dismals. Now they must make their way out with the help of a enigmatic boy-wizard, find their way back to their family, and, incidentally, save the world.
I went into this eagerly: three strong female leads and a mysterious young wizard? I wrote one with that exact set-up (coming soon), though of course totally different from this one. I like reading stand-alone fantasy novels (and oh boy are they are hard to find) with good female characters (also hard to find), and this should have been exactly my cup of tea.
The only reason this book slipped past my 50-page rule was because it is by Andre Norton, the “grande dame” of fantasy, and I just kept thinking I’d get pay-off in the end. But I didn’t. It’s my first try at reading one of hers, and will be my last.
Firstly, it’s very old-fashioned, understandably enough, since this was one of the last books Norton wrote, after a career of more than one hundred books, and she was in her 90s by then. But opening with an info-dump of the history of the family and the land? Annoyingly old hat, and illogical besides, since the conceit is that the three girls are writing out their adventures for the queen, who you would think would already know this stuff.
And continually producing some new concept or piece of history or magic type just when it’s needed instead of having some foreshadowing or introducing the item a little earlier so it doesn’t come out of nowhere (eg yargargy, a terribly addictive power-boosting plant, suddenly mentioned for the first time only when they need it)? Gives the impression she was making it up as she went along and didn’t bother revising. It’s not that hard to mention something in passing when you’re going to need it later, especially when the plot is moving as slowly as this one does.
The language is also heavy-going, deliberately archaic, convoluted and formal. This matches the time period very well, of course, but it had the effect of almost pushing my attention away; I either found myself skimming, trying to get past the endless description to the next important event, or reading without taking anything in – when I could force myself to pick it up and get another page done at all. One inside cover blurb claims it’s “aimed primarily at younger readers”…I have to think if I had trouble reading it, a 15-year-old isn’t going to thrive.
All three girls take turns narrating/writing the account to the queen. Except they sound exactly alike – fair enough, they’re triplets, raised together, they’ll sound alike – but then there’s little point switching back and forth between them, especially, as happens often, within a few paragraphs. It’s distracting and unnecessary. I spent the entire book waiting for the reason for this device – would one die? (obviously not, since all three are writing the account afterwards, so there goes that tension source) Would they become separated? (never for long, though they do all take turns collapsing a lot) Would they end up on different paths by the end? (nope)
The character of the three girls was the most disappointing part. They are not active participants in their own story, but instead spend the entire time being driven and manipulated by forces outside themselves. Even their new powers that manifest themselves do exactly that – manifest without the girls having to work at them, draw them out, or do anything other than be passive receptacles. They rarely know what’s happening, why or how, it just happens through them, not because of them.
The wizard, Zolan, spends the whole time in the Dismals manipulating them, testing them – basically lying to them and screwing them around – and when he explains why, they just accept it passively and go along with it, trusting him when he has given them no reason for it.
He per force must be their guide in the Dismals, but when they finally get out to the above-ground world where he has never been, and you’d think they’d get the chance to lead now they’re in their own environment…no, he’s still the one rushing forward and being the leader. And then their parents show up, and they’re back to being the daughters of the family.
All three are so frustratingly passive and that does not change over the course of the book (despite the bit of defiance at the very end with the ‘we shall choose our own husbands’ bit).
Perhaps I went into this book with too-high expectations given the reputation of Norton; perhaps this is an unusual style of book for her. But I was disappointed by all aspects of it – the writing, the characters, and the plot. Not recommended.