April 24, 2014

A Breath of Frost

by Alyxandra Harvey
Bloomsbury
978-0-8027-3443-3
496 pp.
Ages 12-18
Released January 2014


Starting to feel a bit of a chill? Not surprising when there's murderous magic and family secrets, as well as a potentially disastrous romance, tingling around young Emma Day in 1814 Regency London.  And she understands none of it.

While attending one of those infernal balls at which young debutantes attempt to win the attention of young gentlemen, seventeen-year-old Emma Day drops and breaks a small bottle of liquid which she carries as a talisman as a connection to her mother, Theodora, who has gone mad.  When an earthquake hits, chaos ensues, with Emma first finding an injured girl, Margaret York, and then witnessing a fire breaking out in the ballroom. Grabbing the first help that she can find is somewhat problematic, as it happens to be the debonaire Cormac Fairfax, the young man who'd kissed her over a year ago and then had ignored her so obviously ever since.  Worse yet, they find Margaret dead and covered in ice with a star-nosed mole exiting her chest!  Consequently, Cormac confuses Emma with talk about what she's done and insists she tell no one.

Confusing becomes even more bizarre as the night progresses and Emma and her two cousins, Gretchen Thorn and Penelope Chadwick, return home from the ball.  Gretchen and her twin brother Godric see the ghost of Margaret York and the strange mole.  Penelope, attending to her mother, Lady Bethany, in her sitting room, picks up a ring and falls into visions of being burned at the stake.  And Emma, determined to find out what is going on, steals away to Cormac's bachelor rooms to learn the truth, but not before she witnesses her hands and chest as if on fire.  Luckily, Emma's visit with Cormac is very revealing on several levels.

First, Emma learns she is a witch, one of the Lovegrove line, to which Theodora, Bethany and Gretchen's mother Cora all belong.  Secondly, Cormac is a Keeper for the Order of the Iron Nail, who keep order amongst those who do magic for nefarious purposes and tells her that a door to the Underworld has opened, perhaps because of Emma's "witch bottle", and as a result, Margaret was murdered.  Finally, it becomes evident that, although Emma feels she has been rejected by Cormac perhaps because of her mother's madness, Cormac is very much attracted to Emma but worries that there will be a conflict because of who she is i.e., a Lovegrove.  (Fortunately, I think Cormac will heed the advice of his wise mother that he should not let being a Keeper prevent him from finding true love.)

At 496 pages, A Breath of Frost is a lengthy read and I can't possibly share all the details within.  However, I can tell you that the Order is frightened by the power of the Lovegroves, and when several more young women are murdered, all frosted over, and Emma is the first to find each of them, the Order has her running as a fugitive.  Fortunately, Cormac does all he can to keep her safe, while enjoying stolen moments with her.  Moreover, there are secrets about Emma's heritage (did I mention she grows antlers?) that must be uncovered and worries about the newly-opened doors to the Underworld and the return of the really horrible Greymalkin Sisters, a trio of evil witches.

As I mentioned, A Breath of Frost is a long read but it has so many key characters and so many subplots, not to mention taking place in several time periods, that I'm surprised Alyxandra Harvey was able to keep it down to under 500 pages!  And how she is going to keep it to a trilogy is beyond comprehension, but I suspect that each book will focus on one of the Lovegrove cousins, this first centered on Emma.  In A Breath of Frost, Alyxandra Harvey has had to introduce the witch and magic contexts, and there are so many nuances to how magic manifests itself in general and for the individual, that there is still so much to learn. And that's just the content.

But A Breath of Frost's magic goes beyond its plots.  It sparkles with unique characters, great dialogue, some heart-grasping romantic interludes, remarkable imagery and a wit that twines throughout.  Take Godric's discomfort when he sees more ghosts: "Just when I thought it was safe to quit drinking." Or the image of a little girl with a toothless grin walking a gryphon on a silver chain down the street of Goblin Market. Alyxandra Harvey has created a lavish supernatural world that has all the perfect ingredients for casting a spell on readers of young adult fantasy, with a touch of true love.

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