Kay and I have always wondered if, free from whatever influences or ideas about the cognitive limitations of teenagers that resulted in the abysmal House of Night series, PC Cast might be a decent author. She's had plenty of books published prior to that series becoming a hit, and they seemed to have interesting enough concepts. Plus, as much as it pains us to admit it, there have been bits and pieces of interesting ideas in Cast's god-awful opus, even if they're easy to overlook given the context. We tossed around theories, like how perhaps House of Night is an extremely prolonged fluke, or made worse by the influence of her daughter and the insipid "teen speak", or even a calculated plot to capitalize on the Twilight craze, that was dumbed down intentionally in a misguided attempt to appeal to a younger audience. I mean, from an established author with like fifty bajillion books to her name, writing like the writing in House of Night can't be the norm, can it?
Hence the desire to read Elphame's Choice, despite our less than fuzzy feelings towards her most popular work. Choice is an extension of Cast's adult series, Partholon, and the first of a pair of books set in that world, intended for a YA audience. So how did it stack up? Surprisingly....not as bad as we'd expected. Don't get me wrong, it's not great, either; I'm not even sure it constitutes "good". But it's generally free of ear-bleeding stupidity, and quite honestly that's more than I expected.
First of all, let's be clear, Elphame's Choice is not really a paranormal romance novel. It takes place in a completely different world that has more of a fantasy influence, being in an unspecified medieval time period, with all the warriors, sorcerers, archers, hunters, and what have you that go along with that era. Oh, and centaurs. That's how you know it's fantasy, after all. But I wouldn't be so quick to shelve it with your Lord of the Rings or your Game of Thrones, either. Elphame's Choice places far too little emphasis on any sort of epic plot or conflict for it to even come near the realm of either of those books.
So what we really have in Elphame's Choice is an expanded dramatic romance novel, with fantasy touches and aspirations. Despite what the flap summary would lead you to believe, most of Choice is devoted to slowly developing the characters' relationships and situations. Conflict is almost an afterthought, and conflict on any sort of grand scale is totally non-existent.
Story-wise, Elphame's Choice primarily follows the titular heroine as she sets out to restore an ancient castle that was once home to her family's ancestors. Well, that's our excuse for setting the story in motion, anyway. Really it's about Elphame's quest for acceptance, after having lived a life being set apart from everyone else. Elphame is half-horse, you see - more in a satyr way than centaur, although her father *is* a centaur to begin with - and this is a manifestation of her being touched by Epona. Not the Zelda one, the horse goddess, who in Elphame's Choice is also apparently the goddess of dawn, and big shit in the world of Partholon. As someone so clearly "touched by the goddess", Elphame always been revered and worshiped and treated well, but never befriended, so naturally she's struck with a serious case of emo and alone.
On the goddess topic, I have to mention that this book has a lot of familiar elements. I do hate harping on the House of Night thing, but much of Elphame's choice feels like a template for the series. Though it doesn't get much expansion, the world is incredibly familiar - a matriarchal society devoted to the worship of a single goddess, with element-based rituals and ceremonies presided over by a single powerful woman who has a direct line to the Goddess herself? Sound familiar? Plus, we have a heroine who has been specifically chosen by the Goddess for some grand destiny, and a love interest who comes from a group of alienated and previously undiscovered hybrids who need magical saving from the dark impulses inside them. Seriously, swap the centaurs for vampyres, Epona for Nyx, Fomorians half-breeds for Red Fledglings, and shoddy teen-speak for sketchy "ye olde speake", and you've got your basic set-up for House of Night.
I know it's not uncommon for authors to re-use elements from their earlier works, and to be fair, the story is much more introspective than House of Night ever dreamt of being, but it's all so familiar. Elphame even performs the same sort of element-evoking rituals that I swear to God, you could paste over one of Zoey's in House of Night without anyone being the wiser. Characters even get the dreaded plot-convenience "Feelings" that allow them to make irrational decisions as the plot demands. Yay! I missed those so much. It just struck me as a little lazy, and rather disappointing, actually. I wanted to see if she could do outside of the House of Night spectrum, and was hoping for more of a variety.
But...well, Elphame's Choice puts the emphasis on the characters, not the world, which is a shame, because more world exploration might have yielded that variety. It's implied that Partholon is a polytheistic world, so apparently Epona isn't the only Goddess on the block, but who else is there? Is Epona at the top of the pyramid? Does everyone revere her the way Elphame's family does, or is she hot shit with them because they're the head of the Epona-worshiping cult? I don't know the answer to any of these questions, because we're not given much of a look at anything outside of Elphame's narrow realm of existence. It's never even really made clear what kind of gods inhabit this land - are they Greek, Roman, Celtic, all of the above? Most of Elphame's family heritage and mythology seem to be Celtic-based, but there are other bits that don't quite fit in with that - like references to a Temple of the Muses - and make the mythology muddled and unclear. It could be that all of these were questions answered in the previous Partholon books, which I suppose is fair enough, but it was still a bit disappointing to be teased with the idea of this huge, completely new world and not be given much information about it.
What we do see of Partholon is generally pretty idyllic - a bit unrealistically so, actually...
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