Monday, April 20, 2009

Flora's Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce

Now that I've been free of the treadmill of the SFBC for a while, I'm coming to see what my true tastes in books are -- the ones I pick up when I've got a choice. And first-person YA fantasy novels by women are coming in surprisingly strong, with this and Justine Larbalestier's How to Ditch Your Fairy within just over a month. It's not precisely what I expected, but they're both tremendously entertaining books, so I'll take it.

Flora's Dare is the second novel in a series -- I expect at least one more, from the hints and ending of this book, but not necessarily anything beyond that -- set in an magical alternate-historical San Francisco (called Califa here, and the capital of the same-named polity) where North America was apparently only discovered and settled (thinly, at that) by the Vikings. The first book was Flora Segunda -- which is where I suggest interested readers start -- and there have also been a number of short stories set in the same world, though these, as far as I can tell, don't involve Flora herself at all.

Flora's Dare is more successful than the first book; the world is already established, and now Wilce can just use it. There's also a nice example of "be careful what you wish for" plotting on Wilce's part -- in Segunda, Flora was trying to break her father Hotspur out of a several-years-long depression, and succeeded. And that would be wonderful, except that Flora was essentially free to do whatever she wanted while Hotspur was depressive -- her mother Buck is the head of the local military, and so away from home nearly all the time, and her one sibling is an older sister off in the military as well. But now, at the beginning of Dare, Hotspur has reasserted discipline in the household, and is making Flora's life very difficult with his incessant inspections and rules. (It's a very, very military family; he's ex-service as well.)

Flora, of course, thinks she's old enough to make all of her own decisions and go her own way -- and the reader sympathizes with her, because she is our protagonist and because we remember she was quite competent in Segunda. And all of the plot of Flora's Dare starts because Flora wants to go out to a concert that will run past her curfew -- partially because she just wants to see the concert, and partially because, after the events of Segunda, she has strengthened her desire to become a Ranger, and, to do that, she needs to study the magical language of Grammatica. Her parents dislike Grammatica and avoid it. The greatest adept she knows -- Lord Axacaya, refugee from the Huitzil Empire -- is detested by her family. So instead she's decided to approach Firemonkey, leader of the outlawed radical Eschatalogical Immenation, which is devoted to overthrowing Califa's loose client status under the Huitzils, and any other government they can topple. Firemonkey is also the lead singer of the band Horses of Instruction -- some things about California just don't change, no matter how alternate the world is.

Things quickly get more complicated and dangerous, as the concert is raided by the authorities right after Flora discovers a member of the band is the last person she'd expect. And then Flora learns of an imminent danger to the entire city, uses it as an excuse to talk to Axacaya -- and he asks for her help to stop it. And her best friend Udo not only has a new -- and utterly odious -- girlfriend, but is also hot on the trail of the outlaw Springheel Jack, who is worth a huge reward. (Though Jack is tougher to deal with after he's dead than either of them thought.) And, on top of all that, after the concert Flora is grounded -- confined to her room.

Will any of that stop a determined young woman of the ancient military family of Fyrdraaca? Perhaps not. But learning a long-hidden truth about that family just might.

Flora's Dare is sprightlier, more inventive, and moves faster than Flora Segunda did, and the stakes -- for Flora and for Califa -- might be even higher. It's the rare sequel that tops its predecessor, and the ending will make any reader wish that the promised third novel, Flora's Fury, was already available. The back cover may say "Ages 12 and up," but that ranges way up; this is a novel for Young Adults that even Not-At-All-Young Adults like myself can savor and love.

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