Three sisters discover truths about their family that they never imagined in this debut fantasy novel.
Teenage sisters Charlemagne, Cairo, and Pendragon (“Penny”) Agonistes are devastated when their mother, Athene, disappears. Their father is so emotionally unequipped to cope with the loss that he decides his daughters should leave America and live with their grandparents in England. Upon arriving across the pond, they discover that their family is even more eccentric than they realized. To begin with, their grandmother and grandfather like to be referred to as the Ogg and Gaffer. Then, shortly after the sisters arrive, their two hosts take the girls to a wake for someone they didn’t even know, which is filled with strange people performing bizarre customs. They involve Charlemagne in one of the rituals, during which she seems to slip out of her body and wake up as a different person—a Lady of Serendip—in a different time and place, the magical land of Seraphina. She lives an entire life in the span of a few minutes before coming back to herself at the party. Her sisters then have similar experiences, and Cairo is later hunted by two anachronistic mythical beings called Hamquist and Crakes, who are the cause of Athene’s vanishing. Although the novel makes use of a number of familiar fantasy tropes, it blends them in a fresh and exciting way that rarely feels less than utterly original. One of the story’s central conflicts regarding the goddess of Seraphina, who may not be as beneficent as she seems, is particularly intriguing. Houghton’s prose is similarly strong. The narrative explores the sisters’ attributes (“Penny was the cleverest of the sisters. Too clever, Charlemagne sometimes worried. It distanced her from people her own age and she didn’t have many friends to begin with”). And while the characters aren’t as three-dimensional as they could be, the book’s world is brought to life so vividly that a reader rarely notices this as a major flaw, particularly because the sisters’ bond is depicted with such authenticity and love.
Full of family secrets, mysteries, time travel, deities, and more, this work delivers a bold, richly realized tale from a promising new author.