What a seriously impressive and original young adult fantasy novel. The name alone, Flora Segunda of Crackpot Hall, promises a whimsical adventure. But it’s hard to describe just how quickly Ysabeau Wilce pulls the rug from beneath the reader, removing any possibility of normality and dragging us into a fantastic world where anything can happen—but that doesn’t mean it will.
Flora’s world is one where magic is real and a part of daily life, but it’s rather unfashionable. She lives in a house—Crackpot Hall—made of magic. Its rooms rearrange themselves, and indeed, seem to go on without end. This alone is a cool enough concept around which to base an entire book, so it surprised me that Wilce actually ignores this for the majority of the book and sends Flora off on adventures that take her all around the city (and even a little beyond it). But before we get to that, let’s talk about Crackpot Hall.
I love Doctor Who, and one of my favourite things about the show is the TARDIS and its limitless potential. Imagine stepping through those police box doors and discovering that vast world to explore—let alone all of the places the TARDIS can travel! Crackpot Hall is kind of like that. It’s a house of limitless potential—albeit much reduced and rundown since Flora’s mother abrogated the house’s ghostly butler, who is responsible for maintaining the house in all senses.
So Flora, who is a bit of a rebel, decides one day to use the Elevator to retrieve an overdue book in her rush to school. Instead she emerges on an unfamiliar floor, stumbles into a massive library, and meets the banished butler, Valefor. Gradually he persuades her to help restore him—and hence the grandeur of Crackpot Hall. It’s an idea that thirteen-going-on-fourteen-year-old Flora, steeped in adventure stories of the late Ranger Nini Mo, can’t resist. She’s tired of feeling like her family has been reduced to second-rate hasbeens. And she doesn’t want to go to the Barracks like every Fryrdraaca before her.
What ensues can essentially be characterized as “Flora makes things more complicated.” She gets into a boundless, fluid adventure—with her best friend Udo as her sidekick. At every turn, she comes up with brilliant plans. Amazingly, they seldom work.
Yeah, this is a young adult book where the protagonist regularly and spectacularly fails.
Flora’s plans often work partially, then backfire, and as she comes up with a new and intricate Ranger-inspired idea, events conspire to sweep her up and force her to reconsider yet again. I love this. I love that Wilce walks us through Flora’s thought process even as she makes Flora’s adventures more difficult and—despite the magical setting—more realistic. For example, at one point Flora and Udo determine they need to rescue the Dainty Pirate—an actual criminal who is nevertheless a very romantic inspiration to Udo. They hatch and begin to implement a daring plan to free the Dainty Pirate prior to his execution. This is two thirteen-year-olds posing as soldiers, with a forged transfer order for a prisoner, in order to rescue a pirate. Wilce couches the adventure in the vocabulary and polish expected for a whimsical children’s tale, but it’s actually quite a serious experience … and it all goes pear-shaped. Because, you know, rescuing a pirate prisoner is actually quite difficult, and Flora and Udo just don’t manage to pull it off very well.
I loved the character of Flora. She is adventurous and brave but also thoughtful and obvious interested in reading and learning. Alas, her parents have not been the best to her: her father mopes around in his den, suffering from intense PTSD, and her mother is a workaholic. Speaking of which, Flora Segunda does gender right: Califan society appears to have fantastic gender equity. Flora’s mother is a general in the Califan army, in command of a regiment, and consumed by her job. No one ever questions her ability to command or fight because she’s a woman; no one looks askance at the idea that Flora would, as a Fyrdraaca, naturally be joining the Barracks after she turns fourteen. Oh, and Califan fashion is for everyone—men and women—to wear kilts.
So Flora Segunda is a story of how the titular character realizes that life is not, in fact, a Ranger adventure novel with her as the protagonist. And in fact, towards the end, the book suddenly takes on a much darker, Coraline-esque tone. Because during all of Flora’s adventuring and mucking about with magic, she has actually managed to place herself in grave existential danger. And her only recourse is an enemy of her mother’s. When she seeks him out, he upbraids her rather harshly—but it’s totally deserved. Flora has been running amok, behind her mother’s back, shirking her duties and responsibilities in order to learn forbidden magic and spring a pirate. That’s not to say that this is a book that condemns fun. But it certainly puts such adventures in a neat perspective.
It’s a rollicking and wonderful adventure that nevertheless has a sense of responsibility at its core. Although it’s pitched for a much younger audience than I normally read—younger, I suspect, than the targets of, say, The Hunger Games—I still enjoy how … earnest it is. The protagonist is slightly plump, not jaw-droppingly pretty. She doesn’t have two men—supernatural or otherwise—chasing after her. She isn’t fighting back against the government (even though, by all accounts, it doesn’t seem to be a very good one).
I guess I’m trying to say that it’s just so nice to read a book for children that is entertaining, well-written, and full of positive depictions of people, professions, and even pirates. Moreover, Wilce genuinely manages to surprise and delight in the way in which she develops the plot, enough to keep me guessing and make me want to learn more.
If children’s literature is your fare, then by all means, dare. I highly recommend it.