Reminiscent of classic YA fantasy in the vein of Howl’s Moving Castle and old school Robin McKinley, The Keeper of the Mist is utterly, unequivocally awesome.
Title: The Keeper of the Mist
Written by Rachel Neumeier
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: March 2016
Hardcover: 390 pages
Keri has been struggling to run her family bakery since her mother passed away. Now the father she barely knew—the Lord of Nimmira—has died, and ancient magic has decreed that she will take his place as the new Lady. The position has never been so dangerous: the mists that hide Nimmira from its vicious, land-hungry neighbors have failed, and Keri’s people are visible to strangers for the first time since the mists were put in place generations ago.
At the same time, three half-brothers with their own eyes on the crown make life within the House just as dangerous as the world outside. But Keri has three people to guide her: her mysterious Timekeeper, clever Bookkeeper, and steadfast Doorkeeper. Together they must find a way to repair the boundary before her neighbors realize just how vulnerable Nimmira is.
Stand alone or series: Standalone novel
How did I get this book: Advance Review Copy from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print copy
“The Lord is dead.”
With these words addressed to her, a young girl and baker named Kerianna Ailenn rises from anonymity to become Lady–the guardian and protector of the land of Nimmira. Keri isn’t anyone’s first choice for Lady–with the news of the former Lord’s illness, most of the townspeople squabble over whether or not the title will pass to one of Keri’s half-brothers–the polished eldest, Brann; the formidably large and brutish Domeric; even a few bets placed on the willful and young Lucas, who revels in his role of mischief and foolery. Certainly no one thinks of Keri, daughter of the late Lord though she may be, since she was born to a lowly servant (one who had the unfortunate honor of catching the former Lord’s eye and falling, however briefly, for his charm). No, Keri has always lived a life apart from her brothers or even other townspeople of Glassforge–as a child, she was the girl that other (“respectable”) mothers told their children not to play with. (Those same townspeople, however, have no problem buying the masterful cakes and confections that Keri and her mother create in their bakery.)
As the years passed, and following her mother’s death, Keri has fought for every scrap of recognition and position she has in her town. Yet despite her competence and skill as Keri the Baker, she is still never even mentioned in the question of who will inherit Nimmira’s most prestigious and important role.
But inherit it, Keri does. And suddenly the fate of Nimmira lies in her hands.
A normal succession under these circumstances would be hard–Keri believes in herself and she’s willing to fight to protect her home and convince her half-brothers and others who might doubt her capabilities. Luckily, she doesn’t have to go it alone, for Nimmira has three other magical-trust-keeper roles which pass along with the passing of the Lord or Lady of the land. Every generation, there is also a Bookkeeper, a Doorkeeper, and a Timekeeper determined by the same magic that guides and flows from Lord or Lady to his or her successor. Keri’s Bookkeeper is noneother than her best friend, the brilliant and beautiful Tassel; her Doorkeeper, Tassel’s sturdy and demanding cousin Cort, shows up moments later. As for Nimmira’s Timekeeper, Keri asks the former holder of the role to continue in his service under Keri’s Ladyship–the ancient-seeming man has been Timekeeper for as long as anyone can remember. Together, the four form an unlikely quadrumverate for Nimmira–three very young souls and one very old one, charged with maintaining the mists and boundaries of the hidden kingdom.
As I said before, this would be a tough succession for anyone under normal circumstances. And, unfortunately for Keri and the members of her cabinet, this is most assuredly not a normal circumstance.
Moments after ascending to the role of Lady, Keri and her new Doorkeeper realize that Nimmira is in great peril–the mist that hides the land from its war-making neighbors has fallen, and men from the land of Bear Kings and warriors, Tor Carron, as well as a sorcerer from the land of shadows and magic, Eschalion, have seen Nimmira and slipped under its failing enchantments.
Keri’s job as Lady is to save her homeland, her beloved Nimmira, from the power-hunger of Eschalion and the self-interest of Tor Carron. She, with Tassel, Cort, and her Timekeeper, must figure out not only how to ascend to power in Nimmira, but find the cause of Nimmira’s failing magic and repair it before the enchantment falls completely and Nimirra falls to its powerful much-larger neighbors.
Oh, The Keeper of the Mist, how I love you. The newest novel from Rachel Neumeier–one of my personal favorite fantasy authors–The Keeper of the Mist was one of my most highly anticipated books of 2016. A new standalone fantasy, in a brand new, lusciously detailed magical world? Starring a heroine who must fake her own confidence in order to secure the trust and faith from others, fulfilling a hugely important job that could mean the difference of life or death for Nimmira and all the people within its borders? What’s not to love? Reminiscent of classic YA fantasy in the vein of Howl’s Moving Castle and old school Robin McKinley, The Keeper of the Mist is utterly, unequivocally awesome.
In other words: I loved it. So, so much.
The most immediate and wonderful thing about Nimmira is that it has selected Keri as its champion and protector. Keri is Nimmira’s perfect defender and heroine–she cares about the land and its people desperately, and she takes its magic very, very seriously. While Keri is young and untried in mattes of magic, she is responsible, capable, and direct–having to fight for her bakery, especially following her mother’s death, Keri is intimately familiar with the struggle of other hard-working folk in Glassforge and throughout the land. She is also, again, very young and has inherited the most important role in the Nimmira–so of course, there is bound to be friction. While Keri deals handily with others who question her rule or leadership, the far more interesting struggle is the one that Keri deals with internally, and within her own cabinet. At every step along the way in her journey, Keri questions herself–not because she doesn’t believe in herself, but because it’s a huge weight of responsibility being placed on her shoulders. She never asked for this responsibility, but she cannot ignore or pretend isn’t there. With Nimmira in its gravest hour of need, its magic failing and worse, Keri must rely on herself and trust in her own decisions, just as she must trust her instincts about the people who surround her. This kind of soul-searching in a main character–especially a young female heroine in a leadership position, based not upon how good she is at fighting or how skilled she is in magic, but rather pure leadership and management–is incredibly profound and welcome, especially in a YA fantasy space crowded with special, superior, superhuman heroines.
Of course, the other characters are also every bit as important to the story as Keri herself. In particular, her relationship with the magical members of her cabinet–the Bookkeeper, Tassel, and the Doorkeeper, Cort, and the illusive Timekeeper–are powerful and layered, and I loved each of these relationships for different reasons. Tassel and Keri feel very much like sisters–in particular, they remind me of Sophie and Lettie Hatter in Howl’s Moving Castle. Opposites in demeanor and disposition, but possessing a deep bond that drives both of them to be stronger together, and appreciate the other’s strengths. Then, there’s the enigmatic Timekeeper, who is terrifying and odd, always on the edges but doing his service to Nimmira in the best way he can, serving his newest Lady by telling her that only she can make the decisions that will save or damn their country. And last but not least, there is Cort, Keri’s Doorkeeper. Strong, stubborn and sturdy, Cort is infuriating but also… always present. The revelations that Keri has regarding her Doorkeeper are beautiful, and I love the subtlety and layers to their relationship.
Beyond this inner core of characters, there are just a few more that I will mention: Keri’s brothers Domeric and Lucas, and then the invaders from lands abroad with Osman the Younger of Tor Carron, and Magister Eroniel of Eschelion. Domeric is demanding and brooding–but not unfair. Lucas is charming and sly and the kind of knave that you can’t help but love (Keri included). And Osman is… well, wiley and clever, and charisma incarnate. Eroniel I won’t spoil, except to say he’s pretty scary–but he’s not even the scariest person of the cast. (Eschelion is not a fun place.)
And on that note, I could not end this review without touching on two more key highlights: first the magical rules and worldbuilding that define Tor Carron, Eschelion, and Nimmira; then, the inevitable question of romance.
First, the worldbuilding. For as much as I love the characters, these three separate lands also are characters in their own right. Faced with Tor Carron’s ferocity and Eschelion’s powerful (HORRIFYING) magic, Nimmira’s choice to remain small, protected behind magical mist that makes its neighbors simply forget it even exists is completely justifiable. The differences and nuances of magic in each of these lands is also fascinating, especially when viewed through Keri’s eyes. Suffice it to say, from a worldbuilding aspect, I found myself immensely satisfied and enthralled by the story.
Last, but certainly not least, there’s the romantic angle to the book–or rather, the lack of the romantic angle. I LOVE how understated the romantic elements to this book are–it is not the focus of the book, it should not be the focus of the book, and I love the careful hand Rachel Neumeier uses. This book easily could have been written as a transparent, shitty love triangle/quadrangle–but thankfully, oh so thankfully, this is not the case. I love the restraint, the relationships that do emerge, and those that do not. In many ways, this aspect of the book truly reminded me of favorite YA fantasy novels of my youth–beautiful writing, lush worldbuilding, excellent characterization, and restrained romantic relationships.
In sum: The Keeper of the Mist is a gorgeous book, and I loved every second of it. It’s another winner from Rachel Neumeier, and in the running for one of my favorite books of the year.
Rating: 8 – Excellent, and in the running for one of my favorite books of the year.