This one has a new heroine, only she isn’t a heroine as the book opens. She is, in fact, her family’s shame.
The “she” in question is Isabella Rubén , the rival of the heroine from the first Zero trilogy. Having shamed her family by participating in a plot to take over the city, this twelve year old girl could have been found guilty of treason and put to death. Instead, it has been decided that she must go into exile. And so the pampered daughter of one of the greatest Houses of the city of Shallot is sent far away from everything she has known.
The place of her exile turns out to be Kirkhaven Hall, a stone manor house on the moors inhabited by two distant family members: Ira Rubén and Morag Rubén. Ira is an old man who lives quietly, practicing magic on the forbidden sixth floor. Morag is a much younger woman, though significantly older than twelve-year-old Isabella, who acts as his helper. Both were exiled here long ago and may have been forgotten by the family.
Life at Kirkhaven is a shock to Isabella, as there are no servants. Under other circumstances, she might have been arrogant and demanding, but she is so ashamed by her disgrace that she makes less fuss than she otherwise might have. Still, she gets off on the wrong foot with Morag, because she mistakes her for a servant. Morag is slow to forgive, but Isabella is quick to learn.
It is a dull life for a girl who is used to a social whirl of school and parties, but at least her father has arranged for her to study by mail. Isabella is also invited to use the potions lab whenever she wishes, though she is forbidden to leave the grounds—and the wards of the house are set to stop her from doing so. She is also told not to speak to any ghosts. However, Uncle Ira, as she calls him, does offer her some interesting books, forbidden books, with magic that decent folks are not allowed to perform. To Isabella, the books feel so repellant that she is afraid to touch them. She wonders why he shared them with her.
While she cannot leave the property, she is allowed to explore the extensive grounds. One day, while exploring the forests and rivers outside the manor, Isabella comes upon…a boy!
The two of them soon become friends. He is the son of the local school teacher and, thus, has little in common with the farm boys whom his father teaches. He is lonely and so is she. A wonderful friendship begins.
To visit here, Callam has to sneak in through the wards around Kirkhaven. He has discovered a hole in the wards in the middle of a river. This is startling news to Isabella, because if this boy can sneak in without the wards detecting him, then Isabella can sneak out!
Delighted, Isabella follows him out and down to the town, where she shares a wonderful, friendly dinner with the boy’s parents and siblings. The locals, except from the schoolteacher’s family, are all red-heads. When a pair of older boys try to bully Callam, Isabella, who has been trained in magic since childhood, turns them into frogs, much to their astonishment, as they thought themselves the best at magic around.
Isabella also tries to teach Callam magic, but he cannot do even the simplest spell.
This idyllic life continues for a time, until Isabella, who is growing more wary of the cold presences—possibly ghosts–that show up from time to time—sneaks out with Callam to ask questions of the local wise woman who lives just outside of town. The woman proves very wise indeed, but Isabella is caught outside the grounds by Morag.
Uncle Ira and Morag are both very displeased at Isabella’s open disobedience. In addition to being punished–which includes being forced to drink an experimental potion that makes her lose control of her magic, Isabella is tagged with a spell that tells them where she is at all times. Being a clever sorceress, she figures out a way to defeat this spell and ventures out again, despite dire warnings.
This time, Callam takes her to visit an ancient city. To him, it is just an interesting place. To her, it is filled with ghosts that try to suck all the magic out of Isabella. Callam is forced to carry her home, and the gig is up. She is caught again.
This time, enough seems wrong that Isabella dares to investigate the dreaded sixth floor. What she finds there is so horrifying that it changes everything.
I won’t say more. If you want to know what she finds, you’ll have to read the book. I will say that I loved this book. It reminded me of all the Gothics I loved as a kid, lonely houses, windy moors—only most Gothics star heroines who are trapped and unable to do much to save themselves.
Isabella Rubén is not such a heroine! As the first daughter of a powerful House of sorcerers, she is well trained in the ways of magic and full of ingenuity. She is observant, thoughtful, and clever with her use of her magic.
I really enjoyed reading a Gothic style story with a heroine who could stand up for herself. I’d love to see more stories like that.
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