So many feelings, not sure how to put it into words. Mistwood started off like its title: hazy but somewhat enervating in all its potential; as it condensed, the story and plot started narrowing until it almost missed the mark. Even a few days later, I’m not sure whether I think this is a good book or not. I guess the truth is that I liked so many parts of this book, but in other respects Leah Cypress seemed to leave out or gloss over dimensions that might have made it even better.
The Shifter is a creature of legend, protector to the monarchy of Samorna. Isabel is the Shifter, freshly “recaptured” by the heir to the Samornan throne after she fled from the castle under mysterious circumstances decades ago. Her memory is full of gaps, however, and her powers are on the blink. She spends most of the novel attempting to rediscover who the Shifter is—who she is—even as she questions her supposedly unquestionably loyalty to the king and the throne. The theme, of course, is that these last two are not necessarily one and the same. Oh, and there are some romantic and sibling subplots that kind of dangle awkwardly until the end, where it sort-of-but-not-really gets resolved.
I loved the amnesia part of the plot. It reminds me of a story idea I have, which also involves someone returning to a fantasy court with amnesia (and there the similarities end), and Cypress exploits this trope very well. Isabel is at a great disadvantage, and she knows it, so she has to start making decisions and forming alliances. The characters seem one-dimensional at first, but you gradually get the feeling that even the most outspoken (like Clarisse) have hidden depths. Indeed, the revelation about Clarisse at the end might have been the best “twist” in the book. In contrast, the revelation about Isabel/the Shifter was a little ho-hum and predictable after what we learn about two thirds through.
And so it goes: great little moments amid otherwise unimpressive story elements. Dukes conspiring against a possibly illegitimate king? Yawn. The plotting and palace intrigue is all very pedestrian, with little enough to keep my interest. Similarly, Cypress doesn’t go very deeply into sorcery and why sorcerers seem like such dicks. She hints at things, at how difficult it is, how much it takes from you, but I would have liked to learn more.
Finally, while I enjoyed the revelation about Isabel’s nature, the rest of the book’s climax and conclusion felt too contrived for me. It wasn’t any one thing so much as a lack of good foundations: I didn’t really have any reason to care about one side of the conflict or the other. The true nature of Isabel’s loyalty to the crown is kept so vague for so much of the novel that when it finally matters, we don’t really have a good idea of whether she has actually made a choice, as she thought, or is just following a compulsion. In the end, because we never got to experience the Shifter as the Shifter, pre-Isabel, we lose out on a chance to understand the true impact of humanity’s touch.
You’ll notice I haven’t spent much time examining the themes or anything beyond the surface story. Don’t let this fool you: Mistwood has some profound moments. It might be labelled as YA by dint of Cypress’ sparing prose style and simplified intrigues, but it has all the hallmarks of a strong fantasy novel meant for all ages. Aside from the personal struggle that Isabel faces with finding an identity cruelly ripped from her, Mistwood is a good example of how arbitrary monarchical rule feels. “Legitimacy” is such a tenuous concept, both in our actual history and in fantasy worlds, and the definition of a “good” ruler is very debatable.
Unfortunately, most of these ideas don’t get the exploration they deserve. Mistwood is genuinely entertaining: I certainly wanted to keep reading it. And perhaps that is why my dissatisfaction is so keenly felt now. A lesser book would be easier to write off because it is just all-around disappointing, whereas this one has so many good qualities. It’s not essential reading, perhaps, but one you might pick up if you like “this sort of thing.”