Phoebe Darqueling creates a fascinating portal fantasy where animals take human form and humans become animals through a mix of magic and pseudo-science. The novel explores ostracism, race relations, and the unproven logic that separates societies into classes so some rise and others fall based on aspects outside their control.
We get a clear vision of the society through a large and varied cast along with a tight omniscient third point of view (POV). Any character might earn the POV regardless of scene changes, but I was never lost as to whose perspective held the moment. There were only a few cases where I felt information was withheld from the reader to create a false suspense and appreciated how I learned things for the most part.
This is a debut novel, and sometimes the writing could be more polished, but the characters and the world make up for the rough spots. A good part of the beginning is spent meeting everyone and settling into the world. (Even so, I confused Lord Corvid and Cirroc for a bit because the names are too similar.) The plot is a little loose at points, and I would have been more satisfied with the ending if it had two or three more scenes to wrap up different aspects, but as a whole, I found the novel layered and strong with the writing only interfering on occasion.
The mix of leading characters offers many approaches to explore. We have Buddy, driven to protect and help even when his puppy-like enthusiasm caused the problem. Olivia wants to escape her ivory tower existence and see the world especially if it means running away from her guardian and his unsavory associates. Adelaide has her own secrets to keep while Jeremy wants to rise above his station using his musical talent, which brought him to Olivia’s attention.
There are megalomaniacs able to control crowds with their persuasive voices, aristocrats willing to flout the rules to enable their own curiosity, and a fascinating, barter-based culture that has grown among those without the resources of the aristocrats and so better able to survive in a vibrant community sprung out of the ashes of the main city.
These are only a few of the characters who take the center stage to expose different aspects of Excelsior, both the good and the seedy underside.
As you might guess, a lot happens in this novel, and while little is driven by the main characters, they are quick to react with plans of their own. For example, things keep happening around Buddy that trigger his protective instincts. He draws others into his rescue attempts, some willingly, some eager, and some largely against their will. This gives us a broad cast with complex connections between them that cause as much grief as joy.
Then there’s the society itself which merrily ignores the stratification based on which traveler a person descends from to the point of arranged marriages as part of a breeding program. At the same time, recent travelers are named monsters and hunted down in the street. Since The Great Tragedy, travelers are the cause of everything that has gone wrong in Excelsior, determined to destroy what remains. This myth has become a reality, though not in the way the average person believes.
The traveler magic is as fascinating as it is mysterious. Each traveler discovers what abilities, if any, they arrive with only by observation. Sometimes it takes another to see the patterns. The way Buddy learns his abilities is a good example of where the description worked well. Jeremy’s connection with music, the subtext-filled confrontations between Olivia and Lyre, and the body language crossovers between Buddy as human and Ethan as puppy are a few more.
This wasn’t a straightforward review to write, but I hope I’ve been able to reveal some of the delightful aspects while keeping the surprises intact. It’s a worthy solo work to start a career in long form and gives hope for even stronger works to follow.