January 20, 2017

Julia Vanishes

by Catherine Egan
Alfred A. Knopf
375 pp.
Ages 12-17

I’ve always been on the Catherine Egan-bandwagon, an auspicious venue for readers of fabulous fantasy and struggles in other worlds. The Last Days of Tian Di, her trilogy  (Shade and Sorceress, 2012; The Unmaking, 2013: Bone, Fog, Ash & Star, 2014), took readers to imaginary lands of  Mancers, Faeries and Sorceresses and an exceptional evil vs. good conflict.  But now I’ve joined the ranks of fans of her Witch’s Child series, debuted with Julia Vanishes, who’ve recognized Catherine Egan’s latest high fantasy as something truly special, not unlike Julia herself.

Whilst miscellaneous persons are being murdered and their brains messed with after encountering a mysterious woman and her baby Theo, sixteen-year-old Julia works reconnaissance as the housemaid Ella at the home of the elderly and wealthy Mrs. Och.  After Julia’s mother Ammi was drowned as a witch in one of Prime Minister Agoston Horthy’s ritual Cleansings of those practising outlawed element worship and magic, Julia and her older brother Dek, a great mechanical tinkerer, were taken in by Esme who runs the criminal underworld. As part of Esme’s band of crooks, which includes Gregor and Csilla and Julia’s love interest, the artistic Wyn, Julia has been charged with staking out Mrs. Och’s household from within, watching the lady herself, as well as her guests Professor Baranyi, who had once been in prison for his heretical writings and continues to dabble in mysterious work with his assistant Frederick, and Mr. Darius whose bizarre behaviour and entrapment in the cellar draws her curiosity.  Thankfully Julia has an inane ability to vanish, to be unseen.

There is a space I can step into, a space between being myself in the world and I know not what, where people’s eyes simply pass over me.” (pg. 7)

Julia’s vanishings allow her to learn of Mrs. Och’s smuggling of witches, and of strange experiments on the kind Mr. Darius, and of concerns that the murders and other mysterious goings-on indicate a search for  someone or something.  When Julia reports to their client, Pia, a cagey woman in goggle spectacles, that Mrs. Och has two new house guests, Bianka Betine and her young child, Theo, Julia becomes enmeshed in a dangerous plot that pays phenomenally well but costs her much in self-respect and remorse and leads her to face evil, both inside and out.

It is so easy to get swept up in the world of Spira City (a map is included and necessary) and beyond, a world of magic and subterfuge, witches and immortals.  There is menace and kindness, compassion and cruelty, and the difference is not always clear. Catherine Egan, who knows a few things about writing of evil and villains (see her guest post here), riddles her evocative and atmospheric writing with characters, like Julia, who appear to bridge that continuum of good vs. evil–yes, even Julia has some things of which she is not proud–making them as real as you and me but in a world of fantasy where writings can become wishes and owls can become cats.  Her characters are exceptional for their diversity and natures, and her plotting has the highs of turrets and the depths of dungeons, the twists of secret staircases and darkness, so much darkness.  But it is Catherine Egan’s writing that draws me in so fully.  It’s rich in the textures of shadows and excitement, going far beyond words into realms of new worlds.
A hand jerks his head up by the hair.  A wetness at his forehead, a spreading blackness.  He thinks of struggle, but fleetingly, as if from a great distance–already this sudden, brutal ending has become part of somebody else’s story.” (pg. 28)
When Wyn draws the Twist, he makes all the ugliness, filth, and poverty beautiful somehow–this is his gift, his magic: to transform with love.  And he works his magic on me as well, so that when he touches me, my horrible dress and uncombed hair are nothing, nothing at all to the beauty he draws forth.  I am not the same Julia–motherless, broke, badly dressed, a crook.  In his arms, for a short while at least, I am perfect.” (pg. 87)
From the depths of cruelty to the sublime of love, Catherine Egan writes with a fluid pen and transports readers to worlds where magic is possible. Thankfully Julia Vanishes is but the beginning of that story. Julia Defiant, out in June 2017, will carry us further.

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