Let’s start off with my biases. First, Farah is another one of my friends and a fellow member of the WPC2014. Second, I have a weak spot for fantasy stories with a fairy tale theme and a fantasy world. Particularly high fantasy. Oh, be still, my beating heart! How I love worlds and stories that remind me of Narnia, Middle Earth, Asgard, Neverland, and beyond!
This story is ideal for younger teen readers. It’s enjoyable for older readers, but it’s important that they recognize this book for its target audience. It’s easily accessible to Jr. High readers and will likely appeal more to girls than to boys due to the nature of the narrative, overall pacing, and focus. Those who love classic fantasy, particularly high fantasy and fairy tales will also thoroughly enjoy this.
The beautiful young Aurora has struggled all her life with feeling as if she does not belong, and her despicable aunt, uncle, and cousin do nothing to make things better. In fact, they do just the opposite. But what starts out as a terrifying kidnapping transforms into a remarkable experience as Aurora escapes and discovers her true identity in the land of Avalonia. Not only does she learn who she is but she learns who she must become as she prepares for battle against the evil Morgana.
Aurora, sometimes known as Rory, is an interesting heroine. She’s the sort of girl that most readers could envision themselves as being. She’s sweet but somewhat self absorbed, oblivious, and irresponsible. She’s got great power trapped inside her but she doesn’t know how to channel it yet. Her biggest weakness is that she isn’t very smart. Things that should be obvious often elude her. But given the enormity of the power within her that comes from her birth, it’s good to see her have something that she can grow through. She is not perfect, and I count that as a good thing.
Aurora is also quite vain sometimes. At one point, she has to assume another appearance, and she is quite distraught about being cursed with brown hair and brown eyes instead of her stunning black locks and emerald eyes. At times, I did want to give her a shake and remind her that girls with brown hair and brown eyes can be beautiful too, but it seems to be more of an indication of Aurora’s immaturity and childishness (which she notes herself) rather than an actual commentary. Though whenever a girl has mousy brown hair and plain brown or mud brown eyes, it seems that she is to be regarded as plain or ugly and only ceases to be when the hair and eyes have been changed or transformed. Aurora’s self centered behavior tends to range from the more innocuous to understandable, which is good as she does not become despicable. For instance, when she meets the pegaus, the pegaus introduces herself with a slightly complex fantasy style name. Aurora at once wants to know if she can call her Snow as that is part of the name’s meaning. It’s a childish act that is both endearing but is also rude in that it assumes possession of the character’s identity and places Aurora’s expectation and preference on it. But as she’s a princess and an ultra rare, so to speak, it’s somewhat to be expected that everyone will bend to her will and preferences.
With that said, Farah Oomerbhoy does a good job of showing ways that the world does not revolve around Aurora. A difficult feat given the fact that this story is told exclusively from Aurora’s perspective.
The character development is fairly static as is often the case in fairy tale styled stories. The characters are what they are. There are some “surprise” revelations, but these do not relate to transformations in their personalities so much as they are revelations of who the characters actually are. While Aurora becomes more responsible and more self aware and heroic as the story progresses, most of the others remain as they were when they first started. This allows Aurora’s own development to take the forefront, and she has much to learn.
The world itself is quite lovely. One of Oomberbhoy’s knacks is of relaying the feasts and the different meals here without it being boring. It reminds me of Brian Jacques’ Redwall stories that could make you want to become a vegetarian just so you could try the amazing spreads. While it isn’t necessary to be a vegetarian to enjoy the selection of dishes presented in The Last of the Firedrakes, you will find yourself with some cravings. Most likely for strawberries and cream. Though perhaps for snowberries if you’re able to find some. They have remarkable properties.
Farah Oomberbhoy makes it easy to immerse yourself in the world. It feels quite familiar but not in a boring way. It’s just enough so that you can pick up the story and be comfortable. She adds to the world with various elements like the gorgoths, the dragaths, and so on. The fae and the mages have an intriguing pseudo rivalry, and the politics play a key role in this story. But the story itself doesn’t drag to explain all this. What must be known is incorporated as it is required, keeping the pacing going quite well.
When Farah Oomberbhoy sets up the scenes, she does a lovely job, and she doesn’t waste too much time and rumination on the appearances of the scenes. There’s just enough to get a clear picture in your head before you move on to what’s important or the character’s emotional state of being.
The story contains many fairy tale elements to it. These fae are the good and fun kind. They’re not the ones that steal you away, and they aren’t tricksy or conniving. That’s all in Morgana’s, Lucian’s, and Oblek’s hands. And they are persecuting the fae, herding them out, spreading rumors, and driving them as near to extinction as they can.
In terms of the philosophy and the engagement, it also reminds me of Redwall. There’s not much nuance in characters. They are either all good or all bad. And ugly characters or characters with bad voices are always evil. Particularly if it’s noted that they are fat or have bad skin. If they are plump, then it’s all right. Characters who are unpleasant or cruel to Aurora almost always turn out to be evil, and the baddies are really quite stupid. Particularly one who lives at the school and who misses a great deal that should be obvious. The lessons contained in the story are easy to observe and absorb for younger readers. If you’re a fan of the classic fairy tales, you’ll pick up on a lot of these traits, and it certainly made me smile to see them incorporated so well.
Some have compared the story to a cross between Twilight and Harry Potter. I certainly see the Harry Potter elements, but I would not say that it’s derivative at all. A couple minor spoilers if you will allow me to demonstrate the distinction. Both of these stories involve schools for mages/wizards, but the schools themselves vary significantly. While the majority of Harry’s education revolves around Hogwarts, Aurora’s life only focuses in part on Evolon and what it embodies. It helps her to grow, as a school should, and it serves as a valid starting point for her to develop and her hone her skills.
Another similar point involves the mothers and their children. Harry’s mother gives her life to save Harry, causing him to be marked (sorry if you didn’t know this already). The power of her love within him is part of what sets him apart and makes him so powerful. Aurora’s mother, Elayne, likewise gives herself up to save her daughter. But there are a number of key distinctions as well as, most importantly, the fact that Aurora is already powerful in her own right. In fact, even as a baby, she caused all kinds of mischief. (That scene brought about a number of chuckles. The subtle touches of humor are played well throughout.)
I mentioned before that the story will appeal more to Jr. High girls than boys partially because of the romance strain and the focus on clothing and décor as well as significant internalization of the emotional events. It’s handled quite lovely, and the tension between Aurora and the boy who has caught her eye is quite well captured. In fact, it’s the strongest component of the story. The desire and the growing awareness of them as well as his perpetual good timing in some areas and obliviousness in others makes for a fantastic subplot.
The story doesn’t contain any surprises really. If you’re widely read in the fantasy genre, you’ll be guessing most of these plot twists and how they will play out as soon as the first hints or certain elements arrive on the scene. But the lack of twists does not make the story poor. I may not have been surprised, but I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Aurora evoked emotional responses from me, and I wanted to see more of the world. I also look forward to returning because this is the sort of story where one enjoys the journey.
This book is familiar and sweet. It is another one of those stories that lends itself well to reading aloud, and younger readers don’t have to worry about missing anything. In terms of the narrative style, there is a lot of filtering. Aurora spends a great deal of time internalizing and summarizing. At times, this can become repetitive, but the way that it is handled suggests that this is more of a character trait and part of who Aurora is. When something happens, she has to chew on it awhile. She doesn’t make fast judgments or rash decisions except when disregarding something. All of this makes it easy for younger readers to get all the details. It’s easily accessible. Easy to set aside and pick up again without losing your way. The word lover in me also wants to point out that Farah Oomerbhoy incorporates a lovely mix of larger vocabulary words with easily accessible ones, allowing younger readers to acquaint themselves with a number of new terms in a comfortable setting.
Also, though I wish that this wasn’t notable and perhaps may be a commentary on a number of the other books I have read and not reviewed, this book is not about hopelessness and futility. I have read so many fantasies lately where the world is dark, drear, and all is hopeless and soon to be lost. This world, despite having danger and dire circumstances, never reaches that point of gloom and doom where it becomes difficult to keep going. Instead, it maintains a light and cheerful tone even in the darkest moments. It’s certainly a safe one to read before bedtime though it will keep readers turning the pages to find out what happens next.
Would I Read Again? Would I Recommend?
Oh yes, I certainly recommend this book, and I would absolutely read it again and enjoy it. As with any book, it’s important to recognize what it is, and this is a book that is intended to be fun, enjoyable, and light. It isn’t a deep philosophical discussion. It’s an escape. And there are often days when I wish I could escape into a world like this where all is simple and obvious and where everything can eventually be solved by a good adventure and a magical item. For those days, in particular, I will be eager to return to Avalonia and see what Aurora, Rafe, and the others are up to.