Review copy provided by Tor Books.
This is a very prickly book with a very prickly protagonist. Freddy (Frederica) starts out constantly angry at the world in general and her family in particular. Her main life strategy is to fly under the radar, to remain unnoticed. When new neighbors add a stream of confrontation and chaos to her sister and stepbrother’s unabashed differences, it infuriates her.
Bouncing through space and time with one of those neighbors in a series of uncontrolled time leaps brings her anger to a point where she has to deal with it, where she can deal with it–where, over the course of a deeply syncretist, confusing (to Freddy, but not particularly to this reader) journey she matures enough to deal with it. But bouncing around space and time is only the beginning–well, okay, the middle. There is still plenty of pointed plot after that, and it’s not just herself Freddy has to sort out.
There is a lot to like here. The fantasy part of the structure is entirely itself, the characters are stubborn and fierce and allowed to be flawed, and the resolution is resolute without being neatly tied.
This book does the opposite of most books that have any connection with role-playing games. Most RPG-related books have some connection to a campaign; this one blatantly could not be any kind of campaign. Instead, Maaren has thought about initiative and perspective from a role-playing perspective…and then done the work of putting those thoughts into the context of this medium. One of my major complaints about a lot of science fiction is that it appears to take place in a world with no science fiction; lately I have added to that complaint that it seems to take place in a world with no modern gaming. This book, thank heavens, has noticed that the last 30-40 years of gaming exist, in the same way that writers since time immemorial have noticed that card games exist: not everyone has the same relationship with it, not everyone gains the same insights from it, but people do gain insights from it without the poker game itself having to be the plot of the book. Instead of taking the shallow end of games, she’s taken the deep end; like most of the things I like about this book, more would be a spoiler.
There are also a few things that make me scrinch my nose up. Mel is charming and completely underused; Freddy herself is the type of teen protagonist whose flaws are spotted by the boys around her, a plot arc I am getting a little tired of (and barely redeemed here by the facts that 1. they are not romantic interest boys and 2. they are pretty flawed themselves). Also…this is a book where the protagonist has a growth arc that involves going from being a jerk to her stepbrother Roland about all sorts of things that include his disability (he is profoundly deaf, she refuses to acknowledge that she can communicate with him in ASL, making him read her lips instead and not doing a very good job of that either) to being less of a jerk to him about various things that include his disability. ASL plays some pivotal roles in the book and there are some bits that aren’t pivotal at all and still nicely done…but if you’re a reader who has already had it up to your eyebrows in your ordinary life with people being jerks about deafness, well, here it is again. And if you found yourself asking why exactly this book was about Freddy when Roland is pretty awesome and entirely plot crucial, well, sometimes books do a thing, and this is that thing, and there are lots of other things to like in the course of this book, but it might not be enough if that’s your thing. If you decide to skip it, you’d be missing out on Roland himself, who is pretty damn great, and on some very well-done supporting characters who are deaf (and not all to the same degree and not all with the same interfaces with the hearing world–variety of disability for the win). But for some people, sitting through the part where Freddy’s an ass to Roland may be more painful than having Roland as a really great character, and for others the opposite; judge for yourself which you are.
There’s a lot about initiative and choice and story here, a lot about growth and family. There are awkward bits. There are good bits. And in some ways I find the title particularly amusing, because it is very much not a circle, it is a very very spiky shape, and that’s what it needs to be.
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