IN THE JADED GROVE by Anela Deen (SPFBO 7 Semi-Finalist Review)
Welcome to the Fantasy-Hive’s SPFBO 7 SEMI-FINALIST WEEK.
Just to remind you our team of five judges, me (Theo), Belle, Peter, Scarlett and Calvin have spent the last five months:
- Sampling our batch of thirty self-published fantasy books to (at least) the 20% mark
- Identifying twelve worthy quarterfinalists
- Running six quarter-finals, a couple of which went to extra-time, to choose our six semi-finalists
- All five of us reading all of the chosen-semi-finalists
- All five of us putting the six semi-finalists in our own personal rank order
- Adding up those rankings to decide which of semi-finalists we will put forward to the next stage of SPFBO competition, joining nine other finalists exposed to the opinions, judgements and scorings of our fellow SPFBO blogs.
And now twenty-seven books have left the competition and we are down the final three. Today it is time to look at our third placed semi-finalist In the Jaded Grove – like all of our semi-finalists an excellent book with very many merits.
Of course this means we have Illborn and Shadows of Ivory to review tomorrow. One of them will be our nominated SPFBO finalist. We’ll post separate reviews of both of them at around the same time tomorrow. But we’ll save announcing about which one of them is our finalist until a short separate post a little later in the day. After all – you can’t have too much suspense can you?
For now though, it is In the Jaded Grove’s deserved moment in the spotlight.
Simith of Drifthorn is tired of war. After years of conflict between the Thistle court and the troll kingdom, even a pixie knight known for his bloodlust longs for peace. Hoping to secure a ceasefire, Simith arranges a meeting with the troll king—and is ambushed instead. Escape lies in the Jaded Grove, but the trees of the ancient Fae woodland aren’t what they seem, and in place of sanctuary, Simith tumbles through a doorway to another world.
Cutting through her neighbor’s sunflower farm in Skylark, Michigan, Jessa runs into a battle between creatures straight out of a fantasy novel. Only the blood is very real. When a lone fighter falls to his attackers, Jessa intervenes. She’s known too much death to stand idly by, but an act of kindness leads to consequences even a poet like her couldn’t imagine.
With their fates bound by magic, Simith and Jessa must keep the strife of his world from spilling into hers—except the war isn’t what it appears and neither are their enemies. Countless lives depend on whether they can face the truths of their pasts and untangle the web of lies around them. But grief casts long shadows, and even their deepening bond may not be enough to save them from its reach.
The cover is delightfully abstract and makes a welcome change from the enigmatic hooded figure looking down/away/to the side, which seems to be a feature of many contemporary covers. The production values are generally excellent – I only noted one early typo where there seemed to be a missing ‘of’ in the line “…its host other thoughts.” The prose is generally smooth and flowing, but with flashes of lines that shine more brightly.
I love the cover, the artwork is gorgeous and I really appreciate its connection to the world. I don’t read a lot of portal fantasies, but this one works quite well, and was a fun and easy read.
The cover of this novel is beautiful. In a matt finish, the background is kept dark like a night sky with large flowers in modern lines laid out around the title. The colors of the flowers move from the colder ones on the bottom to the warmer ones at the top of the book. Everything looks very appealing, front and back and each chapter has leaves to adorn the numbers. The book feels great in hand, not floppy and the font used inside isn’t too small. The editing has been done well, though the prose didn’t hit it for me as high for my personal liking for the genre. An example would be, “Beneath a cloud-covered sky, Jessa flipped over a rolling, rural landscape she didn’t recognize. Cliffs bordered it, the area adorned by low shrubbery; cotton-grass, mosses and bracken. Wild pony with their manes snapping in the wind roamed alongside gazing sheep. She approached heather fields where cob cottages dotted the terrain.” Granted, this is a dreamscape, but I disrelish such lines, unfortunately.
I normally prefer original artwork for covers, as opposed to graphic design, but this cover is just wonderful. I love it so much and, more importantly, I think it captures really well the style of the novel within. The production values inside are every bit as good, with polished, well-edited prose throughout.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Simith and Jessa as our main protagonists are both suitably sympathetic if tortured people, capable of grief-driven cruelty. Jessa has ostracised herself from her Philippines based relatives, while Simith (less forgivably) has killed a lot of people. In the context of their worlds and their situations both are realistic characters making credible responses.
However, in a point I will come back to under plotting, I’d also like to give a shout out to the troll, King Drokeh. While we want our protagonists to have agency and to be the powers that wreak a change in their world, that doesn’t mean the other characters have to be mere cyphers, two dimensional constructs of either pure evil or convenient ally-ship. There is a sense in the interactions with Drokeh, that he is very much an independent player and that the book – if written from his perspective – would still be one worth reading.
Similarly, Nessa’s neighbour’s grandmother Ionia, with her own dark secret is refreshingly anything other than a nice little old lady.
I also enjoyed Relle and Katie’s interactions, the Fae in hiding and the girl with a crush on her.
I enjoyed all of the characters, and really appreciated how fleshed out the secondary characters were. As Theo mentioned, seeing things from Drokeh or Ionia’s point of view would be just as interesting as the story we have, and it’s so good to see characters that so clearly have their own thing going on.
One thing I did struggle with though, was the connection between Jessa and Simith. It often felt to me like a point of convenience, rather than a growing bond.
I had difficulties getting into the characters to be honest. I enjoyed Simith well enough but didn’t get on with Jessa or her cast of friends. It is difficult to put my finger on it, but there was such a distinct YA feel to it, that I don’t enjoy. Simith, Ionia and King Drokeh were ultimately what kept me reading and what made it most interesting to me. I enjoyed Ionia’s no fuss and straight attitude and secrets and Drokeh for his enigmatic persona.
There is a wonderfully diverse cast of characters in this one, human and non-human. The two protagonists, Simith and Jessa, are each suitably engaging. They each have experiences in their past that contribute to their current identities and that push them toward the actions they take in this novel. There really is a certain beauty to the way the story unfolds, and particularly to the relationship between the two protagonists.
I also found the side-characters to be very well drawn and, as Theo first pointed out, to have a certain agency of their own. It’s all too common for side characters to end up feeling like they’re just there to speed along the protagonists. In this case, the side characters really do feel like they could receive a book of their own. They have motivations and pasts that play a role in this story. Still, the focus throughout remains on the two protagonists.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
I like the way this is plotted in that it doesn’t rely on characters making stupid mistakes, or getting lucky breaks. The characters (main and supporting) all react sensibly and intelligently to the situations they find themselves in, in ways that are consistent with their past experience and their priorities.
That said, about two thirds of the way through we do get a sudden plot development – a dangerous solo path by which Jessa and Simith might avert disaster for their allies – which came up a little abruptly. It isn’t a deus ex machina by any means, but it felt a bit convenient – as if the author had suddenly lost faith in the resolution we all thought we were heading towards.
The way Jessa and Simith’s individual paths twine around each other was well handled, and each stands on its own. Like Theo, I did find one particular plot development to appear abruptly, but it certainly wasn’t a deal-breaker.
I found Simith’s story slightly more interesting, and appreciated the level of detail given to explaining how past events lead to the current situation, without overloading on unnecessary detail. Deen is great at providing context without slowing the pacing down at all.
The plot accelerated moderately fast in my opinion with two instinct breakpoints. One, when Jessa meets Simith and the other after midway as Theo mentioned, when the protagonists have to go solo. I found the action picked up after breakpoint one more so than before but didn’t give enough pause to either strengthen the motivations of characters or allow for sufficient space to unfold less rushed, moving from one event into the other.
I felt like the plot and pacing worked out very well in this one. The novel doesn’t start slow, there’s actually plenty of action in the opening chapters, and the author doesn’t really let off the gas much. Yes, there is an ebb and flow to things, the protagonists do have some downtime, but it never feels like things have bogged down. Some of this may be due to this being a somewhat shorter novel in comparison to a lot of what I read, so there isn’t a lot of time for the protagonists to sit around doing nothing.
Also, I could not agree more with Theo and what he says above about the plot and characters reacting believably and intelligently to situations while also being consistent with what we know of their pasts and character.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Smith’s world is quite vividly realised, though – lacking a map – I did find it difficult to locate myself in events. Without a sense of geography and terrain the military aspects of tactics and strategy can feel a little naive. I had a similar experience with Kirstin Cashore’s Graceling books, and possibly that is why – like Cashore – Deen avoids delving into the details of big tactical battles and instead keeps the focus on small handfuls of combatants in flight and pursuit.
The magical nature of Simith’s world – a raw resource that can be pulled out of the air by all the magical creatures within it – is cool and emphasises the difference in the magic-free wasteland of Michigan. I also liked the variety of races. The malevolent and incredibly powerful Fae, the once tortured Fairie who used a dreadful curse to overthrew the Fae and the Pixies – allied with the Fae against the Trolls whose mountains hold a resource the Fairie want. All the races have their different weaknesses – for example the Fae cannot lie, and the Pixies can be held in total thrall by anyone who knows and calls them by their true name. It is such a dreadful power that it did make me wonder why they would ever part with their true names and that does lead the plot into some of its weaker contortions. Ultimately it sends Jessa and Simith on a dangerous quest to effectively find a factory reset for the pixie true names.
Simith’s world is rich and varied, and I liked that each race had its own strengths, weaknesses and motivations. The contrasts between the magical fae world and non-magical human world were well done, and lead to some interesting developments.
Like Theo, I struggled a bit to grasp the geography, but as I rarely look back at maps (when they exist), it’s likely to be a me-problem more than anything else. Keeping the focus narrow helped overcome that particular problem.
Simith’s world is sprawling in diversity and filled with magical elements. The worldbuilding was definitely the novel’s strong suit and most interesting. Different races like Fae, Pixies, Trolls and the Fairie are given a weakness and have to move within certain parameters. Adding in a few bad apples and misunderstandings, and we have what ensues to be a race to set things straight and a dangerous path for the main protagonists.
There is really a surprising amount of world building and politics in this novel, where you might expect the focus to be more singularly on the characters. It’s true that the spotlight remains firmly fixed on our two protagonists throughout, but Deen manages to fully flesh out her world along the way, and it’s an interesting and fun world. I found the idea of different foci for magic to be interesting and I actually would have liked to have seen more of that. In fact, I think that might have been a more interesting direction for the plot to pursue than the somewhat more tropey true name angle. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t resolution and a satisfying one at that, but there were a few moments when things started to feel perhaps just a little predictable around people’s true names and just how powerful those were.
Quotations that resonated with you
While an entertaining story in its own right, Deen’s narrative does make some interesting socio-political observations.
Having once been persecuted does not mean you will always be the good guys – The Fairie were dreadfully abused by the Fae during the millennia of Fae rule, but they took a terrible decision in how they chose to overthrow their oppressors and have become as monstrous as the enemy they banished.
“This world lived thousands of years under the cruelty of the Fae, they used Fairies as their objects of play more than any other. How can you condemn us to this?”
“Survival comes from power,” Lady Carraway said quietly. “We learned that lesson well.”
People in power may tell any lie and commit any atrocity to pursue a resource/wealth they desperately desire. Despite the last “World War” ending over 70 years ago, our contemporary world has been convulsed with regional wars and proxy wars throughout the intervening decades. However much we may believe in the concept of a “just” war it is striking how often just wars need to be fought in places rich in resources rather than just those subject to oppression. And – if the powers that be hunger for a ‘just’ war, the evidence to justify it can always be “found.”
“You mean, they decided to take by force what they couldn’t get through trade, sounds like standard colonizer strategy.”
Through manipulation and misinformation the powerful can weaponise hate to their advantage, making one group hate another so badly that they fail to see how they are exploited and misled, and instead commit atrocities at their master’s bidding. In short the misinformation at the heart of Simith’s situation resonated with many of my current extra-fantasy distractions. Anyway – enough of my pre-occupations. There are other well written lines that struck a chord on their own merits.
Another way of looking at a star filled night.
“Night had fallen, full of stars, and for once Simith stared up at them. The cloak of souls stared back.”
Also, on being lost in sorrow
“Grief was a lawless map. It had no true north.”
Or in a tense moment
“Don’t be afraid of me.” His voice roughened. “I beg you.” She didn’t answer. Her silence was a wound.
There are also moments of humour.
“You’re a healer?”
She snorted. “This is the extent of my expertise unless you count knowing that Band-aids should be applied with the sticky side down.”
This book is full of beautiful prose, and could easily be here for hours trying to quote it all, but these are the two I keep coming back to:
“No monster lives but for the evil others have done before him.”
“Father.” Simith’s voice emerged as if from underwater. “When will you forgive me for the monster I became?”
A tremor moved across his father’s shoulders, but he didn’t look back. His reply was so soft, Simith almost didn’t hear him. “When I forgive myself for letting it happen.”
I do enjoy descriptive writing and this one I highlighted immediately, also due to the dark contradiction.
“Embroidered at the color in scarlet thread, thorned wines traced the length of their shoulders, their gemstone conduits sparkling in the amber glow of the braziers. As did the malice in the smiles they gave him.”
I’m actually going to steal one of Theo’s quotes, because I think it captures one of the central themes of the novel really well: power.
“Survival comes from power,” Lady Carraway said quietly. “We learned that lesson well.”
So much of this novel and the story within revolves around power. Power lost. Power gained. Power over a person. It’s an interesting dynamic, at times subtle and at times not-so-subtle. Again, the focus often feels like it’s on the characters, but there is this thematic element that, under the surface, ties together so much of what happens and so many of the motivations of the characters and the various plot threads of the story.
In The Jaded Grove tells a good story and tells it well. There are some elements that reminded me of Tolkien or Harry Potter in the hunt for the horcruxes, or even The Little Mermaid. The ending is a little drawn out, but that is to a degree necessary in a genuinely standalone novel to allow readers and protagonists to come to some post-denouement closure. On the whole it is a well paced piece with its chapters from alternative protagonist points of view always leading me on to find out what happens next. Keeping the reader turning the pages is a novelist’s first and foremost duty, and Deen does it very well.
This is a very well told portal fantasy, and it kept me interested right until the very end. While the characters are great, it’s the worldbuilding that really pulled me in. There’s a great balance between the adventure and exploring themes of power, racism and equality. Highly recommended to anyone looking for a fast paced standalone.
This novel has a magical feel to it and I think YA readers will enjoy this quite a bit. Real world relatable angst and problems mesh with an intriguing world discovery and dark elements that will test friendships and add a dash of romance. A portal fantasy that’s highly magical and touching in parts, it hurls modern world teens into a whirlwind of the fantastical.
I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Deen does an excellent job of telling a complete, stand alone story that is a romance at one level and an adventure story at another level. While there were moments when I might have found things a tad predictable, I enjoyed my time in this world and the characters have stuck with me since I finished the novel.
Portal fantasies have expanded in many different directions since the four Pevensey children first went into a wardrobe and met a lion and a witch. If you are intrigued by the idea of our ordinary world colliding with one of magic, and people crossing in both directions between them, then In the Jaded Grove is well worth adding to your TBR list.