Sunday, September 27, 2020

Keeper of the Lost Cities

Keeper of the Lost Cities
by Shannon Messenger
Recommended Ages: 11+

It wouldn't be true to say that there's never before been a book series to answer the question "What if Harry Potter was a girl?" I mean, Nita in Diane Duane's "Young Wizards" series is a girl – although she doesn't learn magic at a school like Hogwarts. E. Rose Sabin's A School of Sorcery features a female magic student named Tria, but after her acceptance letter the adventure bears little resemblance to anything in the Potterverse. The heroine of Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics spends only part of the book actually studying at said college. These are all series (or parts of series) in which we find girls studying magic, but they don't really have much in common with the Boy Who Lived. So, although it's not quite accurate to say it's never been done, flipping the gender roles in "Harry Potter" hasn't been done as thoroughly as in this book.

Sophie Foster isn't a wizard who's been brought up by muggles, however. She's an elf who has been raised among humans. Long ago, in the world this book inhabits, humans broke their side of a treaty between all the intelligent races in the world, including elves, dwarves, goblins, gnomes, etc. So, the allied races took themselves into hiding – for example, by sinking the continent of Atlantis to the ocean floor – and they pointedly have nothing to do with humankind. However, our Sophie has reached age 12 believing she's a human and knowing nothing about the world she really belongs to. Her only clue that there's something different about her is her ability to hear other people's thoughts, which is more of a disability than an ability; without any idea how to control it, telepathy afflicts Sophie with headaches and loads her down with a secret she's terrified others will find out.

She's having a hard enough time fitting in at school even before someone publishes an article about her, exposing her as a freak. During a field trip to a museum, a strange boy recognizes her and reveals that he's a telepath, too. He whisks her off to the elvin world and tells her it's where she really belongs. In fact, for her family's safety, they have to forget they ever had her, while Sophie finds herself set up for adoption by a couple still grieving from the death of their own child – an experience so rare among elves that nobody understands what they're going through.

Sophie is still struggling to accept all this as she is enrolled in Foxfire, a school for elvin nobility, where she starts learning things that overturn all the science she learned in human school, and where things that you and I would take for magic are just the way everyday things work. She struggles to keep up in alchemy class, learns to bottle rainbows and starlight, practices a version of dodgeball where you move the ball with your mind, feels tempted to cheat on her midterm, and tries to hold together a group of friends who belong to totally different social cliques. All the usual angsty teenage stuff, only with telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis and a bunch of other mind-over-matter talents that will blow your mind right alongside Sophie's.

But Sophie isn't just any student. Sort of like how Harry is the Chosen One, there's a secret about Sophie's past that endangers her and those close to her. There's a dissident movement that the elvin council doesn't even to want to admit exists, and they have something to do with why Sophie spent her first 12 years living as a human. Someone has buried secret knowledge in her brain, and as each piece of information comes to the surface, it causes her to inadvertently say or do something dangerous and/or forbidden by elvin law. She has powers she doesn't know about, waiting for the right trigger to become manifest. There are forces in play that seem to want her to get in trouble, to be kicked out of Foxfire, to be exiled or worse. And there seem to be people who want to use her for what purpose she can scarcely guess.

So, Sophie's first year at Foxfire is, somewhat like Harry's at Hogwarts, a year of discovering all kinds of magical possibilities that all the other kids her age have known about all their lives, making new friends and enemies, getting into weird scrapes, and wondering, "Why me?" What she's up against isn't anything quite as definite as a Dark Lord. In fact, the deeper she gets into it – naturally, by poking her nose into matters she's been warned to pay no mind to – the more apparent it becomes that whatever is going on is more complicated than anybody has guessed. She breaks open hidden reserves of stupendous power. She survives an inordinate number of life-threatening accidents. She suffers doubts about who her true friends and family are, and has particular trouble managing her feelings for two boys who don't get along with each other.

So, as I said, it's the closest thing to "what if Harry Potter was a girl," with a 12-year-old girl who suddenly learns that there's a hidden world of magic in which she truly belongs, and a school for kids like herself. But there are also people who don't want her to be there, and people who want to destroy her, and people who want to use her for (no doubt) nefarious purposes, and all kinds of ways a gifted girl can be in terrible danger, ranging from mishaps in P.E. class and severe allergic reactions to an ordeal in which she almost sacrifices her life for a friend. It's an emotional ride for a girl who feels things strongly, and who cares about doing the right thing (though she is often tempted to do otherwise), and whose need for family and friends and a place to belong is put to a painful test. It's a peek into a unique magical world with whimsical creatures, strange powers, dark secrets and fabulous scenery – and a parade of strong personalities, working out a dramatic storyline in front of it. Funny, thrilling, heartwarming, a bit teen-romancey, and with scary undercurrents, it has something in it to keep pretty much anyone turning the pages.

This book is the first installment in a series by the same name, whose succeeding titles include Exile, Everblaze, Neverseen, Lodestar, Nightfall, Flashback and Legacy. Messenger is also the author of the trilogy Let the Sky Fall, Let the Storm Break and Let the Wind Rise. I've obviously come to the party late. This series already has a fandom, as evidenced by a Youtube video I just saw in which a teenage boy announces his dream cast if they ever make a movie out of "KotLC" (an acronym he rattles off so fast that it doesn't sound like an acronym). I must be losing touch with the times, because I never realized it existed until this book showed up on the discount rack at the local Walmart. It took a few chapters for the hook to set, but I enjoyed it overall and I can see the attraction of continuing with the series.

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