Asperfell by Jamie Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book #2 is being written, no information on the name of the series yet
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy
Published: February 18th 2020 by Uproar Books
ARC received via Netgalley in exchange for an honest opinion. All opinions expressed in this review are my own and the quotes included may have changed in the released copy.
What an utterly charming and engrossing debut.
<blockquote><i><b>“Whispers in the dark.
The dead keep the secrets of the living.</b></i></blockquote>
Asperfell was a surprising and enchanting tale, and made even more so by the flawless writing. Jamie Thomas took a risk with her prose. With its classic sophistication, it could have come across as pompous or out of fashion. But instead, it felt surprisingly fresh and suitable to the atmosphere (in the first half rather regency-inspired and then bordering on gothic in the second half). The writing flew seamlessly and elegantly and retained a classic charm with no trace of the dullness or prolixity that makes some classics so unapproachable or difficult to read.
Elegant writing and exquisitely written dialogues aside, I very much enjoyed the story Thomas weaved in this first installment of her debut series. This is a book I could equally recommend to YA (despite some dark themes but none pushed to a deep or shocking level) or adult fantasy readers. However, grimdark readers or readers who prefer very complex plots might find it a bit soft or youngish for their tastes.
The story starts with 8year-old Briony overhearing the news of the king’s murder. Soon after, she witnesses the exile of the culprit: the king’s own son and heir to the throne, to the mysterious prison of Asperfell. Criminal and rogue magicians are sentenced to life in Asperfell and once they cross the portal, they can never come back. As she grows, Briony finds herself buffeted by political and mystic storms despite her family’s best efforts to both shelter her and tame her adventurous, curious soul.
<blockquote><i><b>“Have courage. And no matter how dark the world seems and how much you’d like to darken with it, find whatever light you can wherever you can, and help it grow.”</b></i></blockquote>
I liked Briony and her determination, except when said determination turned into nosiness or bordered on selfishness. She was a mischievous little thing when she was a kid (reminding me of Arya Stark in the beginning of GoT) and never lost her humor and her spark growing up, despite the multiple ordeals she had to face and the various nets that tried to ensnare her. Most of the supporting characters were also well fleshed out and gained depth as the story progressed and their interactions with Briony gave them spotlight.
The worldbuilding and lore were pretty simple, with the exception of the prison of Asperfell, which stole the limelight and was one of my favorite things about this book. I couldn’t help but compare it to Hogwarts. Or a version of Hogwarts for grown-ups. No wait, that still isn’t it. Okay, a darker version of Hogwarts where you replace magic newbies with stars in their eyes and lives full of potential before them with criminal sorcerers who will never get their lives back is more like it! It even had its own versions of Dumbledore and professor McGonagall!
<blockquote><i><b>“People will always fear that which they do not understand, and magic is particularly difficult to puzzle out for those who have never felt it deep within them, never used it.”</b></i></blockquote>
I felt like Asperfell drew its inspiration from many amazing sources in the Fantasy genre but it never felt derivative to me. It had a unique flavor and a unique atmosphere. I also loved discovering how magic worked, even though I had to wait until the 2nd half to learn about its intricacies. My only qualms were that there were some lulls in Briony’s day-to-day life in the various locations she visited or called home (however every part was eventually necessary no matter how lengthy or seemingly random). And the ending. There was a consensus from the reviews I read beforehand, that the ending lacked the complexity that the meticulously constructed story required. The ending was indeed weaker than the rest of the story and would have benefited from more detailed explanation. Some threads have also been tied conveniently. But it was still enjoyable and didn’t alter the satisfaction and coziness I felt upon finishing this excellent debut.