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Grail of the Summer Stars by Freda Warrington – review
Fantasy has had a long-standing tradition of stories that involve hidden races living among us. Even the earliest fairy tales involve a prickly group of magical beings that are easily offended and have no problems making themselves known to the worst of the mortal transgressors. Some of those stories are more well done than others. Some of the magical races make themselves more obvious than others. Whatever the premise behind the story, it’s clear that when humans and otherworldly beings interact, things are definitely going to happen.
Grail of the Summer Stars is the concluding volume of the Aetherial Tales trilogy by Freda Warrington. This particular book is the first one that I read in the series, and it actually works pretty well as a stand-alone novel. That’s surprising to me, because so many series books these days don’t work that way. The characters have some complex backstories, but any details relevant to their current plotline in the book are at least filled in enough that a reader doesn’t have a hard time keeping characters straight or figuring out what is going on.
Stevie Silverwood works in a museum in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham in the United Kingdom. She loves her job, even if she works with some oddly difficult people. An artist friend of her sends her an odd triptych painting, requesting that she put it up for display, shortly before he disappears. The painting is on display for only a short span of time before Stevie is attacked and the work is stolen. A handsome stranger shows up at the museum asking questions about not only the painting, but Stevie’s missing friend. They end up going on a journey that will take them not just half-way around the world but through other dimensions on their quest for answers. Stevie discovers more about how the world really works and also about herself than she ever thought possible.
The book has a contemporary fantasy setting. It could easily take place right now, or ten years ago, or, probably, ten years into the future. It’s not exactly timeless, but the way it’s written gives it a sense of time that feels very current without ever needing to resort to pop culture references or current events. That’s certainly a tone that I find very admirable. Sometimes, cramming in those reference doesn’t just feel forced, it feels cheap.
The Aetherials are a group of beings that can manipulate energy not only to create objects but also to alter the fabric of reality if they wish. While they are limited in the scope of their power, with older Aetherials being more powerful, they are connected by a force collectively referred to as The Spiral. There is a group known as The Spiral Court that oversees the Aetherials and holds them to a set of ethics that is not necessarily well-defined in this particular book. It’s enough to know that there is a governing body in place and there are things that you just aren’t supposed to do. It is possible to get into enough trouble that access to The Spiral, which seems to function as a pathway between realms, is denied, pinning a being or race to a specific region of The Spiral.
To me, Grail of the Summer Stars had a high fantasy flavor to it, with several of those long-cherished high fantasy tropes thrown into the mix. Of course, given the setting and the way the story unfolds, it breaks from much of the high fantasy traditions that can make a story feel stilted and clunky.
The book did take me longer to get through than I wanted it to. Part of me just wanted to dive headfirst into the story and be fully immersed. There were concepts in it that made me really want to be wholly absorbed. Two things really kept that from happening for me, though. The biggest one is Stevie Silverwood as a character. It’s perfectly all right if a writer really likes Stevie Nicks. It’s also perfectly all right if you want to create a character who looks like Stevie Nicks, and it’s still okay if that character dresses like Stevie Nicks. Believe me, even in the Midwest, where I live, there are plenty of women who are clearly imitating her walking around all over the place. But, you’ve also got to assume that other people, especially people who are reading your book, probably know who Stevie Nicks is and what she looks like. At that point, it’s not just prudent but highly necessary to name your character something besides Stevie. Otherwise, that suspension of disbelief just goes completely out the window, and no amount of dreamlike prose is going to restore it.
The other thing that bothered me was the author’s penchant for using the word delicious to describe everything but food. People were delicious. Sheets were delicious. Morning air was delicious. It was overused as an adjective, despite the fact that the novel clocks in at 380 pages. Favorite words are favorite words, and every author is guilty of using them more than they probably should. I do it, too, I know. Somehow, though, the overall tone of the novel just seemed to call for phrasing that was more delicate and elegant than the word “delicious.” For lack of a better explanation, after the second time, the word delicious just seemed to thump itself into place and sit there awkwardly in the middle of the page, just waiting for a reader to ignore it and move on.
And, yet, despite those criticisms, I didn’t hate the book. Grail of the Summer Stars is not poorly written in the slightest. It does have passages that fairly shine with beautiful descriptions, particularly descriptions of a street in Venice, Italy, and a canyon in Arizona. The character of Daniel Manifold, Stevie’s artist friend, is heartbreaking without being a token whipping boy, and, honestly, I would love to read a book about him and his experiences.
I am curious to read more by this author, because I want to see what she does with other characters and their stories. I really did like her ideas and how she put them together, and, I think, with a different set of characters involved, I would really enjoy more of her stories.