What joy! A new Zero Enigma book by our own Christopher G. Nuttall
The Family Pride is the sixth book in the Zero Enigma series, but it is also specifically tied to The Family Shame, the fourth book which chronicles the story of Isabel Ruben. Book Six is the story of her brother.
The Family Pride opens six years after the events of the first three books. Akin Rubin is a likable and easy-going young man who loves forging—the art of making magic items (not making fake documents)—and would love to apprentice with a master forger. Unfortunately, Akin is the heir to house Ruben, one of the oldest and most prestigious houses in the city.
And heirs have responsibilities.
The story opens with Akin’s father calling him in to explain that Akin had just been named Head Boy for the following school year at Jude’s Academy. Akin has no desire for such a distinction—or to do the work associated with it—but his father has pulled strings, and now he is struck. He can’t turn it down, but nor does he have the network of supporters normally associated with someone who has earned this top honor. But then Akin did not earn it. His father purchased it for him, something he is not happy about.
Worse, on top of the workload required to pass his exams and be a competent Head Boy, his father wants him to undertake the Challenge—a mysterious test given during the final year of school. Those signing up to take the Challenge don’t know ahead of time what it’s going to be, but they are required to put together a team and to be prepared for anything. Akin’s father tells him that the qualities needed to win this Challenge are similar to those needed to run one of the great houses, and the winner is recognized as one of the top members of their generation. So, if Akin wins this contest, he will quiet those who think he may be too weak to lead a great house.
Arriving at school, Akin discovers that the Head Boy and Head Girl share a suite, and the Head Girl is Alana, the older sister of Akin’s fiancée, Caitlyn. (I was disappointed when I realized that Cat was no longer at Jude’s Academy and would not be a major force in this book, but…of course, she would not be there. She had no magic and, with her unique (so far as is known) talent of forging permanent magical items, it would make no sense for her to be studying magic she could not perform rather than doing invaluable work only she could do. And yet, I missed her. )
A great deal of this book covered the student’s struggles making it through the school year, which is always one of my favorite part of books set in magic schools. Akin must pass his classes, keep the younger students in line, and develop a team to win the Challenge. He does find time, however, to go exploring with Rose. This was one of my favorite passages in the book. Jude’s Academy has large unused sections. The wonder of peering into the unknown, the charm of the two of them sneaking away from their daily duties to peek among these unused corridors was quite enjoyable.
The problem is: The Challenge requires a team, and Akin has always been rather a loner. Worse, he can’t have Cat help him, because her sister is also competing in the Challenge, and it would be considered a conflict of interests. The same thing for Rose, Cat’s best friend, because she is sponsored by both Akin’s and Alana’s families.
Most of the good magicians in his class have already been snapped up by others from competing houses, who got to work on building patron-client relationships early on. Atkins sister Isabel had been good at this kind of thing, but after she was shamed for becoming involved in a rebellion, she lost all her influence. So, Akin must now build a team out of the leftovers—people who no one else has asked to join them.
Slowly, he begins to flesh out a team. His first member turns out to be easy. Akin’s cousin Francis asks to join. Francis is an easy-going young man who’s captain of the sports teams. He’s kind of mean in the way that boys are often mean, but the two young men seemed to have a good relationship. Both Akin and Francis share a mentor in the form of Uncle Malachi, their aunt’s husband who is also the father of their mutual cousin, Penny. Akin also approaches two girls whom others ignore. One is a rude girl no one likes who wants to tear down the aristocracy, and the other is dreamy and unfocused. Her magic is good, but there is something strangely slow about all her motions. Francis also finds two other guys from among the athletes. That makes a team of six.
The team trains hard. Cheating is allowed, so the different teams have to watch to make sure the other teams are not sabotaging them. Finding their secret hideout trashed, Akin tries to take revenge—and ends up as a frog in the ladies room. Not one of his better days!
Meanwhile, life as Head Boy is made harder when he discovers that his cousin Penny, a dorm monitor, is bullying a first year student. Akin cannot understand how a kind man like Uncle Malachi could have a such bully for a daughter.
Akin tries to find out more about the Challenge. He learns that his father and his uncle, Francis’s father, once tried the Challenge together, but someone on their team died. The two brothers were never friends again. More than that, however, such as what the Challenge is or how the boy died, he cannot discover. He is not even sure that his team is training for the right kind of contests.
During a break in the school year, Akin gets to spend a bit of time with Cat, with Rose as a chaperone. He also arranges a secret meeting with his disgraced sister, Isabelle, who sneaks him an Object of Power to help him with the Challenge. It is crudely made, but Akin is puzzled as to why such an important object had been abandoned in the broken-down mansion where Isabelle is staying. Is there some mystery here?
When the Challenge actually occurs, Aiken must face unexpected obstacles and a question of whether or not what the Challenge seems to be is the real issue. Will his team pull together? Or will he fail to uphold the family pride?
I enjoyed this book very much. It was a delight to get back to the world of Shallot and Jude’s Academy. The feeling of kids at boarding school with both the good sides but also the real horror of it are so well done in this series.
One detail I continue to enjoy is the care taken to put across the local tradition that girls under the age of majority must keep their hair braided, and only adults are allowed to have their hair down. This has come up before in the series, but it comes up particularly in this book on a number of occasions, and I thought it was well handled. I also thought that the struggles of Akin and Cat’s engagement—with the two young people liking each other, but seldom being able to spend time together unchaperoned—balanced against Akin’s life at school surrounded by other lovely young women—was well handled.
A thoroughly enjoyable book.