The award for the longest SF/fantasy title is probably still held by DG Compton's 1971 time travel novel Hot Wireless Sets, Aspirin Tablets, the Sandpaper Sides of Used Matchboxes, and Something That Might Have Been Castor Oil, later reissued under the more manageable but far less inspiring title Chronicules. However, Ysabeau S Wilce's juvenile fantasy Flora Segunda must be in the running for the longest subtitle: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. And yes, it lives up to it.
Flora Segunda is Flora Nemain Fyrdracca ov Fyrdracca the Second—hence Segunda. The first Flora was lost in the War; she had golden curls and rosebud lips. Flora Segunda, who has neither, is approaching her fourteenth birthday, when on attaining adulthood she must make a speech "celebrating the fabulousness of my House, the glory of my family, the fantasticness of my future." But her house, Crackpot Hall, is run down, especially since Flora's mother banished the butler denizen; her family isn't glorious any more, apart from Flora's mother who is Commanding General of the Army of Califa; and Flora's assured future, joining the army herself, is the one thing she doesn't want to do.
Instead, Flora wants to be a ranger, basically a free-ranging scout-cum-spy, not a soldier following orders like her older sister. Also, rangers can use magick; soldiers can't. Flora's heroine is Nini Mo, who founded the rangers in the last war. Nini died, and at the end of the war her rangers were disbanded, but her sidekick Boy Hansgen disappeared. Now they feature in trashy adventure novels, and Flora has read every one of them.
Flora lives alone in the huge, rambling house, most of which is inaccessible. Or almost alone. Her mother and sister are off in the army, but her father, drunk and morose and prone to fits of smashing things up, still lives in the house; most of the time, to Flora's relief, he keeps to his own room. But she has to cook and clean and tidy and look after the dogs and horses, in the time when she's not at school. In the other great Houses the Butler would do all this by magick. And she has to calm her father down when he's in a rage, and clear up the trail of destruction he leaves behind him.
One day, in a rush to get to her room, instead of the stairs Flora takes the Elevator, forbidden by her mother because of its unpredictability. The Elevator takes her to a Library she didn't know existed—where she meets a skinny, scruffy, faded youth who turns out to be Valefor, the Butler of the House, who has known generations of the family. He's faded because he's banished. He fades even more when Flora, annoyed with him, speaks a magickal word, but he persuades her to give him a little of her anima, her spiritual energy, so he can start to gain strength, though at Flora's expense.
All of this is just the first few chapters, the background to the novel. Already the reader has a host of questions. What is this House, so full of unknown rooms? (I was reminded of John Crowley's Little, Big rather more than Gormenghast.) Can Flora get the Butler working for the House again? Is it safe for her to give of her own inner essence? Will she ever get her speech written?
And then the story proper gets going, with Flora and her best friend Udo involved in a complicated adventure to rescue someone from imminent execution. From this point on, any plot details would be spoilers.
The novel is fun. The characters are all, quite deliberately, just a little bit over-the-top, but you find yourself identifying with and really rooting for Flora Segunda, who has to overcome her self-perception that she is only second-best. Although it gets a bit stodgy in the middle, there are plenty of twists and turns in the plot, which is left with enough details unresolved for a host of sequels to follow.
Importantly, for a fantasy novel, the magic feels real. You can't just snap your fingers and say a spell and turn someone into a toad (though it's possible some people might be able to do that). The words are complicated and easy to get wrong, and there are other ingredients necessary for any spells beyond the simplest. There's a whole page discussing the different uses of "the Acquisition Sigil to find something you need but don't have; the Retrieval Sigil to find things you had but then lost," the Recovery Sigil, the Discovery Sigil, the Recollection Sigil, the Revelation Sigil, and the Discernment Sigil. And magic has consequences. It takes energy; it drains you. We also learn, fairly early on, that it wasn't a bright idea for Flora to let the Butler take a little of her anima; soon he wants more, and the two become linked at the deepest of levels.
Ysabeau S Wilce clearly has an interest in working magic and esoteric spirituality. Valefor is "an egregor of the fifth order" (he's also a duke of demons in standard demonology), there's a reference to immanentising the eschaton, and so on. Even the name of one of the great Houses, Bilskinir House, is strongly reminiscent of Boleskin House, Aleister Crowley's (and later, Jimmy Page's) home in Scotland.
It's surprising, then, that she makes a couple of very basic mistakes. First, as a Jungian archetype, surely Flora's essence, her spiritual energy, would be her animus, not her anima (i.e., the balancing opposite gender). But most surprising, throughout the novel Wilce uses the words "magick" and "magickal" rather than "magic" and "magical." Since Crowley, magick with a k is generally taken to refer to sex magick; magic without a k refers to any other magic. As this novel is aimed at 12-year-olds and upwards, this clearly wasn't intentional on the author's part, but it is quite some clanger to drop—especially in hypermoralistic small-town America, where some school boards ban any novels which include magic (not just the Harry Potter books, but novels by such outstanding authors as Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman) as being temptations into devil worship.
This mistake is even more surprising because Wilce is (to a British reader) ludicrously scrupulous in avoiding any bad language from her characters. Flora's opening words in the novel are "Blasted heck, I'm supposed to be writing my Catorcena speech. . . ." Blasted heck? I can say with certainty that I have never heard a 14-year-old—in fact, anyone of any age—say "Blasted heck." It's reminiscent of juvenile novels from the 1920s and 1930s. And because it's so horribly artificial, it prejudiced me against the novel from page one; it took a good fifty pages before the great characters, the richness of the description, and the story won me over. It could get readers, especially British adolescents, scoffing at the novel on the first page—and that would be a great shame.
There are other irritations to do with language. I think the author tries a little too hard for a young voice, making Flora and Udo sound closer to seven than to fourteen. Presents are "gifties," sandwiches are "sandwies," and Flora's stomach is her "tum." She says to herself, "Udo, oh Udo, don't be a prat or a fool or a twit."
In other places Wilce's language is incorrect. It may (just) be permissible these days to use "court martials" rather than the correct "courts martial," but to speak of a criminal being "hung" is simply wrong; in the old saying, pictures are hung, people are hanged. I'm making a perhaps pedantic point of these because in other ways Wilce is beautifully old-fashioned in her use of language; for example, characters make a courtesy to each other rather than a curtsey. So how she commits the infelicity of saying "Mamma shall kill me if she finds out" rather than the correct third-person future tense of "Mamma will kill me," heaven alone knows.
The novel is set in what appears to be a fantasy historical version of California. Flora's mother is Commanding General of the Army of Califa; the novel mentions the Bay of Califa, and a town called Angeles. Their enemies are the Huitzil Empire whose priests practice child sacrifice; the Huitzil have guards called Quetzals, half-human, half-bird; one ambiguous character is Lord Axacaya. So we know where we are geographically—but whether we are in the past or the future of our own world or in an alternative reality is not made clear.
This ambiguity is heightened by Wilce's frequent use of references to our own world. Flora's father, who she rather annoyingly calls "Poppy," has the nickname Hotspur (the fourteenth-century Henry Percy). A drunken soldier stands on a table and sings "Chicken on a Raft" (the sea shanty by Cyril Tawney). There are several references to Lewis Carroll: Valefor says "You could threaten his life with a railway share" (from "The Hunting of the Snark"), while "claws that catch, jaws that bite" is a misquote from "Jabberwocky." In all these cases, these references are only allowable in the novel if Harry Hotspur, Cyril Tawney and Lewis Carroll are as much a part of the world of the Republic of Califa as they are of our own world; otherwise they are careless intrusions which spoil the believability of Flora's world.
But despite all these criticisms—perhaps the inevitable flaws of a first novel—Flora Segunda is an enjoyable read. Wilce has had stories set in the Republic of Califa in Asimov's and F&SF, and as mentioned above it's clear that this novel is the first of a series. I look forward to reading the next.
David V. Barrett is a former editor of the BSFA journal Vector and a former chair of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He edited the SF anthology Digital Dreams (NEL 1990). He has been a freelance writer since 1991, specialising in new religious movements and esoteric religion and history; his books include Secret Societies (Blandford 1997, Robinson 2007) and The New Believers (Cassell 2001). He plays fretless bass in the rock-jazz-blues trio Midnight.
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