Author Rebecca Ross is generally known for her young adult fiction, with popular titles such as The Queen’s Rising, Dreams Lie Beneath, and Sisters of the Winter Wood under her belt. And while the plot of those books may all be wildly different (an adventure to restore a rightful queen, a story of a magical dream warden, and a tale of two sisters inspired by ancient Greece), they nevertheless have one thing in common: Ross’s ability to take well-worn character types and narrative tropes and mix them together into something that feels brand new.
From slow-burn love stories to enemies that gradually turn into lovers, reluctant Chosen Ones, and family members willing to trade anything for one another, these stories are satisfying largely because their beats are so familiar. And yet, thanks to her delicately intricate writing, Ross makes these stories feel fresher than they have any right to be, full of likable heroines, swoon-worthy relationships, and thoughtful, complex stories that contain more layers and nuance than immediately meets the eye.
A River Enchanted marks Ross’s adult fantasy debut, but the same strengths of her YA writing can be found here, in a story that mixes fantasy staples with political intrigue and a dash of mystery on top. The story is set on a vividly imagined, clearly Scottish-inspired island known as Cadence whose people have existed under a curse for centuries, one which leaves their land literally torn in two.
The clans of the east and west sides of the island live in what is essentially two different worlds: The Western Breccans can wield magic, but as a result rule over a dead land that doesn’t produce enough food to feed their people and whose elemental spirits are hostile toward them. In the east, the Tamerlaine clan holds sway over a bountiful realm of plenty, where food grows abundantly and the spirits are, if not always kind, at least not often cruel.
Yet, the Tamerlaines’ ability to use magic is limited (they can weave or craft it into objects such as clothing or armor) and comes at great personal cost to those that cast it, since in many cases using magic for long enough shortens their lives. The two clans have been at odds for hundreds of years, as the Breccans raid across the magical clan boundary line to steal food, and the Tamerlaines spend both their magic and blood fighting to hold them off.
A River Enchanted technically follows Jack Tamerlaine, a young man who left Cadence a decade prior to the start of the novel in order to study music on the mainland among regular humans. But when a mysterious summons from his clan laird draws him home, he discovers the island is in the throes of a frightening crisis: Young girls are going missing, and no one has been able to figure out who’s taking them, or what might be happening to them while they’re gone. And Jack’s musical skills—the same ones he left Cadence so long ago to train—may be the clan’s last hope of finding them.
Along the way, he’ll have to work with his former childhood rival, Adaira Tamerlaine, the young Heir of the East and secretly the source of his summons back to Cadence. Adaira herself is smart and capable, the sort of character capable of easily stealing this series right out from under the boy it’s ostensibly supposed to be about. The only surviving child of her royal parents, she feels great duty toward her land and its people and is willing to risk everything to find some sort of path back to peace.
Jack and Adaira still have something of a prickly connection, brimming with all the sass and banter of a classic enemies-to-lovers romance, yet nothing about the evolution of their connection feels forced. (Look, I’m not someone who’s much for nicknames but something about Adaira calling Jack “my old menace” just hits me in all the right emotional spots. Sue me!)
Ross’s wide array of supporting characters in this novel are especially good (Torin and Sidra’s emotional journey together is a highlight), who add depth, humanity, and color to the fully realized world of Cadence, which has been obviously and clearly imagined down to the ground. And while there are occasionally choices that serve narrative necessity more than character development (Jack’s acceptance of several surprising family revelations, for instance, comes much quicker and easier than I would have expected), the plot contains some genuine surprises.
Yet, as A River Enchanted unspools it becomes increasingly clear that this isn’t so much Jack’s story we’re watching unfold, or even Adaira’s. But, rather this story is about the history of Cadence itself, and the long-running feud between the Breccans and the Tamerlains is just a small piece of the stage upon which that story has played out. A complex exploration of nature, family, and what the idea of home means, there’s plenty to love here, and much to build upon in the Cadence duology’s forthcoming second half.
A River Enchanted is available in bookstores now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.