No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, March 15, 2009

#18: Flora Segunda ... -- Ysabeau Wilce

Some of these sigils were quite complicated. The Recollection Sigil ... called for several arcane ingredients (attar of crimson corn, starfish eyes, and a bowline knot), required that the adept prepare by drinking nothing but fizzy lemonade for three days before, and ended with the adept setting herself on fire. The Revelation Sigil ... called for six adepts and copious blood-letting. The Recovery Sigil required actions too disgusting to even contemplate. (p. 100)

In need of a feel-good read, I set aside all the books I should be reading: Flora Segunda was exactly what I needed, but it's far from shallow and the frothiness is more enjoyable for the dark undercurrents.

Flora Segunda -- Flora the Second, the first having died -- is the youngest daughter of the Warlord's Commanding General ('Mamma') and Hotspur, former glory of the Fyrdraaca family, now broken and mad following three years as a prisoner of war. Flora's fourteenth birthday -- her Catorcena -- is approaching: she'll go off to the Barracks and learn to be a proper soldier in the martial tradition of the Fyrdraacas. "We are born to the gun," says Mamma: but Flora doesn't want to be a soldier, she wants to be a Ranger like her heroine Nyana Keegan. Trouble is, Rangers (solitary and stealthy, magick-users) were outlawed, and none survive.

Meanwhile Flora juggles housework, school and the arrangements for her Catorcena party (dress-making, writing and sending invitations, baking tamales), while waiting for her mother to return from military inspection, and dreading her mad father's next descent from the Eyrie where he drinks, smokes and grieves.

Until the day when an overdue library book and a capricious Elevator (Crackpot Hall, a.k.a. Fyrdraaca House, has eleven thousand rooms, mostly inaccessible) combine to introduce her to Valefor, magickal Butler (or Denizen) of the house, abrogated by Mamma for reasons that are never clarified. Valefor -- a skinny boy with purple eyes -- persuades Flora that he can help her, if she'll just share a little of her Anima, her spiritual energy ...

Mamma hates magick: it's a trick, she says, a cheat, an easy way to do hard things. Mamma is all about the hard things. (p. 2)

The plot of Flora Segunda is delightfully complicated: I won't attempt to recount it here. Suffice to say that there are pirates, ghosts, magickal disguises, ice-cream parlours and beautiful foppish youths (well, Flora's friend Udo). Also plenty of backstory, family and otherwise, some of it remarkably dark and bloody for a YA novel.

The setting is fascinating. The Republic of Califa is situated on the west coast of a vast continent, a client state of the Huitzil Empire: the Huitzils (nicknamed the Birdies, as their name translates as 'hummingbirds') are given to blood sacrifice and cannibalism, and are served by half-human, half-eagle Quetzals. Califa is Hispanic -- no evidence of English influence -- culturally reminiscent of the 18th and 19th centuries, with 20th-century overtones: opera, ice-cream parlours, horsecars, Madama Twinky's Lip Rouge, yellowback pulp novels ... There's magick, elaborate and baroque: there is a complex system of etiquette, bows and curtseys and fans. This is not our world -- though Hotspur is given to quoting William Blake, and Valefor has clearly read Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark.

Flora's language is occasionally quite childish, but she's a brave and resourceful -- if occasionally reckless -- character with an innate talent for magick, who matures and changes over the course of the novel: I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, Flora's Dare, to watch her growing up a little more.

I liked Flora, but I instantly developed a crush on her father (disarmingly, and disconcertingly, referred to by Flora as 'Poppy': Udo calls him Hotspur). Beautiful, broken and with a mysterious swashbuckling past; paints a black mourning stripe across his face; a thin shadow in a worn cadet shawl and bloodstained frock coat creeping out the back door to buy more booze (p. 9): what's not to like? I really want to read more of his story, though I feel rather like a spectator who's watching the wrong part of the stage.

Wilce has written several short stories set in Califa, aimed at an older audience and featuring characters who are (mostly) dead in Flora's time. Of course I had to hunt these down: the language is similarly baroque, bubbly and witty, though the themes are rather darker and more adult.

And I crave more ...


  1. Great review! You ought to get your hands on the second one, too, if you haven't already done so. It's every bit as wonderful.

  2. Memory: it's on order!