Saturday, August 09, 2008

Magus of Stonewylde, by Kit Berry

(pb; 2005)

From the back cover:

"Sylvie and her mother come to Stonewylde, a beautiful estate hidden in rural England, and believe their troubles are over. Stonewylde is a place of standing stones and earth energy, an idyllic refuge from the modern world.

"But all is not quite as it seems. There's another side to Stonewylde, a darker more sinister side where brutality is rife. One boy understands why Sylvie has come. And why his life is now in danger."


A sickly teenage girl (Sylvie) with mysterious allergies and allergy-attendant eczema (unseemly-looking flaky skin) is brought by her mother, Miranda, to a charming back-country village (Stonewylde) where alternative medicines and "magic" take precedence. Societally speaking, Stonewylde is a throwback to an almost-medieval age, where feudalism is the rule; there are two classes in Stonewylde: the educated Hallfolk who travel between the modern world and Stonewylde, and Villagers, who live in relative poverty, and do most of the grunt work in Stonewylde. Sylvie and Miranda, unfamiliar with this older society, are slowly, charmingly, being courted into becoming Hallfolk by the Magus (aka, Solstice, or "Sol"), whose iron fist methods of ruling Stonewylde are hidden beneath velvet gloves.

Yul, fifteen, headstrong, and one of the Villagers, is all too familiar with the Magus's cruelties, as he is constantly a victim of them. Seems the Magus, like Yul's drunk, abusive father, has taken a strong dislike to Yul, and Yul can't understand why. It's easy to understand why Yul's father is the way he is; but the Magus is another matter.

When Yul and Sylvie meet, changes immediately begin to happen -- slowly, at first, but by the end of this first Stonewylde book (there are to be five in the series) no one in Stonewylde can doubt that dynamic, crazy changes are about to flip their social order on its side.

Kit Berry is a plain-spoken writer, ably balancing elements of fantasy, restrained romance, adventure, and modern-day tensions. No flashiness to her fleet-footed prose, but plenty of show-it-like-it-is descriptions that gripped this reader, and made me loathe to put it down for relatively unimportant things like going to work, sleep, or eating. The main thing that caught me was how real and multidimensional her characters feel: even her bad-guy characters are shown to be relatably human, with their own (often misguided) reasons for their actions. I still cursed at them when they did cruel things (and there's plenty of cruelty going around), but at the same time I also understood why the bad guys acted the way they did.

I'd hesitate to recommend this gem to tweens. There are veiled references to rape, more than a few references to sex (all of them tasteful, and relatively veiled), and a few scenes of whipping/torture that would pale in comparison to certain "torture porn" flicks of recent years (the Saw series, and the much-better Hostel series come to mind). All of these darker elements are justified by -- and necessary to -- the themes of paganism, light and darkness that run through this well-written, engaging work that manages to work on a personal, character-centric level, while telegraphing a story that looks to go "epic" soon.

Can't wait to read the next Stonewylde book, Moondance of Stonewylde.

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