I enjoyed Storm Glass more than I thought I would when I first started. For whatever reason, I’m not aboard the young adult fantasy train right now, which is a shame, because there’s plenty of young adult fantasy I want to read, but I’m hesitant to go into it until I’m in the right mood! Still, I received this from NetGalley in exchange for a review, so a reading and a review it will get!
Imagine, if you will, a Regency England in which the rich live in floating manors and the poor live in the Fells, down below on the ground. Oh, and there are airships (obviously there are airships). This is the world Jeff Wheeler has us visit in Storm Glass. If you’re rich enough, you learn one of the four schools of Mysteries—Wind, War, Law, or Thought—which are kind of an arcane cross of magic and actual science. If you’re not rich, well, typically your parents are going to sell your deed (read: indentured servitude) and you’re not going to have any control over your destiny. So, you know, typical world with a fantasy twist.
Cettie has only ever known life in the Fells. Cettie can see ghosts. One day, her life changes forever: Vice Admiral Brant Fitzroy agrees to try to adopt her. From then on, Cettie will live in his floating manor of Fog Willows and want for noth—wait, sorry, no, that’s not right. Cettie tries to settle into Fog Willows, but there is an antagonist (the evil Mrs. Pullman), not to mention the whole of society frowning at Fitzroy’s scandalous eccentricity. Meanwhile, the other half of the narrative follows Sera Fitzempress, a second precocious 12-year-old, one who stands to inherit the empire if her father doesn’t get his way and who has a penchant for beneficence that will probably get her in trouble.
At the centre of this story, I suppose, is the premise that life is horribly unfair, and that once you realize this, you can do one of two things: you can lean into it, embrace the unfairness, and do your best to “get yours”; or, you can work to try to level the playing field, even if that makes things harder for you along the way. People who take the former tack are not necessarily “evil” but might be misguided; likewise, those who try for the latter aren’t inherently “good” but may have good intentions. Both Cettie and Sera must learn to navigate this unfair world and start making choices for themselves in terms of how they want to interact with it.
I think that’s where Storm Glass piqued my interest: agency. Cettie and Sera both have it, though Sera’s is severely curtailed in how she can exercise it. In both cases, however, the two protagonists are their own people. Plenty of characters tell Cettie what she should do, how she should think or behave—but she always resolves to do what she believes is right. I like that, even when it means she makes a mistake.
That’s where Storm Glass doesn’t quite come through for me, though: mistakes. Or maybe more accurately, just “the stakes”. Now, Wheeler threatens us with pretty high stakes, to be sure, for both girls. I love Mrs. Pullman as an antagonist: she is so delightfully convinced of her own rectitude that it doesn’t even cross her mind that what she is doing is wrong. I’m less enamoured with Sera’s father—he seems too one-dimensionally cruel. Both threaten their respective charges with harsh consequences. But just when the going gets tough, the climax of the book hits, and everything seems to wrap up too soon. I guess I was hoping for a bit more struggle, a bit more hardship, a need to be more clever.
Another dimension that didn’t bother me too much but might bother some people is the vagueness of the magic system here. The Mysteries refer both to knowledge that one learns in school as well as aptitude for various forms of magic. It’s largely based on force of will, it seems—Cettie is able to exercise some elements of it, despite having never been initiated into the Mysteries—but there isn’t much time spent on developing how this works any further. I actually like that Wheeler doesn’t bog down the book with a lot of exposition; we get precious little explanation of the political system, or the way the Mysteries work in conjunction with the rest of society—you have to do a lot of filling in between the lines. And I’m fine with that. Still, this attitude applied to the magic system means that we’re basically in a situation where magic can do whatever the plot needs (and maybe that’s why I’m dissatisfied with how the story resolves).
Overall, this is what I’d deem a competent fantasy novel. It ticks a lot of the right boxes. I enjoyed it, enjoyed the energy, liked the climax, stayed interested. It hasn’t stuck with me. I’m not sure I’d read a sequel. Your mileage, as always, will vary.