This evocative and atmospheric novel explores the close relationship between two young women, set against a harsh social and physical environment. Anya is an orphan, abandoned to live with her brutal Aunt in a hierarchical household where punishment seems endless. With her is Eva, her Shadow, from a caste whose identity is never thoroughly explained but who carry the burden of social pariah and outcast, tainting those who associate too closely with them. In this relationship we find the core of what Zoe Brooks has created here: a world which is both recognisable and not, whose elements are all too familiar and yet powerfully imagined beyond the familiar. It is magical realist in some senses but also, as some other reviewers have noted, it has a kind of otherness about it that some science fiction fans may identify with.
The characterisation is strong and interestingly cast. Anya and Eva are well drawn and we observe as they evolve their identities and their names to protect themselves as they embark upon a journey of which this novel is just the beginning. But there are enormous numbers of other characters too, from key players like Anya’s dead mother and her vicious Aunt, the King of Pharsis and Julian, to smaller bit players like dressmakers and landladies, each painted with equal care. This is perhaps one aspect which may put off some readers: the cast is so great that we sometimes feel we have abandoned members of it as Anya and Eva journey on, and they seem lost to us forever.
Likewise, the somewhat episodic nature of the book is sometimes blurred by a lack of spatial punctuation, an absence of breaths between scenes as it were, and at times this threatens to overwhelm the reader. The tone of voice is also occasionally ambiguous: for much of the time Anya speaks both in dialogue and narration in the authentic voice of her early adolescence, but at other times she seems far too adult, too literal, even though we know that Anya’s life has caused her to grow up very quickly.
The novel ends with an opening, a new beginning as it were, as Anya begins to explore the notion of a vocation, a destiny, a path into the future that is hers and not carved by circumstance. If you enjoy this novel you are likely to read the next one, for Zoe Brooks has created a world within this book that will draw you in and not easily relinquish you.