In this debut YA novel, an Australian girl dreams she’s an 18th-century Scottish Highlander woman while preparing for an academic competition.
Lottie McGrath, 13, of Greater Nook Marsh, near Sydney, has been an accomplished faker of illness ever since age 7 when she used the tactic to avoid boarding school. Subsequently, she’s liked having a reason to demand attention from her preoccupied parents, but a recent doctor’s visit has Lottie worried; she now has an actual lump on her rib cage. Lottie is also distracted by extremely vivid daydreams in which she’s Aideen, a Scottish Highlands woman who’s a warrior at heart in the 18th century, and, lately, by an upcoming literary quiz competition called the Aussie Lit Joust that pits girls against boys. When Medha Nayar, the girls’ head teacher at Quoll Grammar, asks Lottie to participate in the Joust, she’s honored but deeply insecure. In dreams and fantasies, her Scottish counterpart salivates over Cairn, the chief of the MacUahmnhans; in real life, Lottie aches for attention and certainty. In Miss Nayar’s office, Lottie spots a watercolor of the Indian goddess of war, Durga. The teacher explains that the goddess creates other females to help her fight demons: “They are all different, but they are all her—Durga.” Lottie is chosen to lead the Joust, an experience that produces her inner warrior. Afterward, reality, dream, myth, and imagination violently merge in Lottie’s ordinary life, bringing her a revelation of her true self. While readers might be misled from the early pages into expecting another time-travel Highlands romance, Gill has other ideas in mind for her novel. It’s an ambitious brew that sometimes intrigues, as with Quoll Grammar’s library, once an insane asylum’s chapel. Its midnight-blue ceiling of ribbed vaulting looks like bookshelves under a moonlit sky, and the librarian is a wonderfully named Jamaican, Mr. Three. More, please. But it’s hard to buy the quiz as a fight for the ages, and the story’s other disparate elements—overwrought YA flourishes, broad domestic comedy, repetitive Highland scenes, and a maelstrom ending—don’t effectively coalesce.
While this tale brings some vibrant new ideas to the paranormal genre, they could be more deftly integrated.