John Dickinson’s The Cup of the World centers on Phaedra, daughter and only child of the Warden of Trant, an all-important land/fortress in a land with a long history of internal warfare. Her combination of looks, inheritance, and intelligence makes her the prime bridal catch, even one of the two princes is her suitor, but she rejects them all for two basic reasons: fear (of losing her independence and her life as her mother did, dying in childbirth) and love (of a strange man who comes to her in her dreams). Her father gives in as he has to her desires ever since she threw a hunger strike at him when he considered remarrying. Her marriage is resolved when she slips away with her dream man, who it turns is real and has some strange abilities. Her marriage, her choice of husband (though she didn’t know who he was at the time), and her rejection of many of the land’s proudest men spark political and personal problems. This is the first third or so of the book and the rest follows Phaedra through the years of warfare between her husband and the king. During that time, she becomes pregnant, gives birth to a son, begins to uncover some of the secrets underlying her husband’s strange powers, and realizes her newborn child is being threatened by otherworldly creatures.
The plot intertwines several story strands and does so smoothly. We never leave Phaedra’s point of view, which dilutes somewhat the impact of some of what is reported to her. The war is mostly background given in second hand reports or letters — those looking for the typical fantasy descriptions of big battles would best look elsewhere. The politics are relatively narrowly focused but not dumbed down. Chess is a frequent metaphor and an apt one throughout the novel — there are levels and levels of play and some characters look ahead better than others.
We spend a lot of time with Phaedra but despite that she never really held together as a particularly strong character for me — I never felt a sense of true depth to her. She wasn’t poorly drawn, but she was more an adequate mover of plot than an interesting character in her own right. A statement I’d make about just about all of the characters. They served their purposes in the story, but I can’t say I cared much about what happened to any of them (part of the reason for the three rather than a four). The same holds true for the major antagonist of the story, which is too bad because there was a lot of potential in his creation and basic description.
The detail and atmospheric description made up for some of this. It was mostly well-paced but started to lag a bit in some areas toward the end. The ending itself seemed a bit rushed or abrupt, where too much information was recapped by characters rather than allowed to flow naturally out of the story. The same strengths of story and atmosphere combined with improved depth of character would make for a strong second novel. Somewhat recommended.
The Cup of the World — (2004-2009) Young adult. Publisher: Filled with immense characters, this thrilling medieval fantasy filled with moral complexity and vision announces the arrival of a special new writing talent. Phaedra, the beautiful daughter of a baron, has been visited in dreams by an elusive knight for almost as long as she can remember. And when his presence becomes a reality, she is forced to choose him and a new life over her home and her father. But this sets off a chain of events that she could not have foreseen — a battle between good and evil, which is in turn violent and psychologically compelling. This stunning novel grapples with the huge themes of life, and turns the reader’s expectations upside down again and again, with one vertiginious plunge after another.