Gifts of the Unmage & Spellspam by Alma Alexander
Despite some rough spots, Alma Alexander’s Worldweavers series is an intriguing new entry in YA fantasy. At least based on the first two books in the series: Gift of the Unmage and Spellspam. The series is set in a world roughly akin and contemporaneous with our own, save that people can use magic and there are other “polities” such as dwarves, Alphiri and the Faele. Into this world a little over a decade ago is born with lots of fanfare and media coverage, Thea — the seventh child of a pair of seventh children — and from her are expected great things. Unfortunately, she seems to be completely bereft of magical ability and we enter Gift of the Unmage as she is given one last chance before her parents pack her off to the school for magical incompetents. Her father has pulled in lots of favors and arranged a mysterious tutor who turns out to be an Anasazi shaman (part of her father’s string-pulling included bargaining with the Alphiri — a highly mercantile race — to open a portal to the Anasazi time/dimension).
The entire first half of the book deals with Thea’s attempts to learn from Cheveyo and redeem herself in her father’s eyes especially. Both Thea and the reader are introduced to many southwestern Native American concepts in this section and it’s truly fascinating. Cheveyo is your typical stoic, stern, taciturn mentor, but while the character type is stock, the character is not and Alexander lends him a warmth and vitality beyond the clichéd. And while the “action” of this section is muted — no large magics, no black hordes, no monsters in the night, no dragons, etc.—the story is no less compelling thanks to the relationship Alexander develops first between Cheveyo and Thea and then between Thea and Grandmother Spider. The tension and conflict in this part deals not with armies, dark lords, or the usual fantasy tropes. It’s more interior and twofold: Thea’s fear of never being able to do magic and thus make her parents proud and living up to society’s expectations and her growing realization that the Alphiri have had a strange and seemingly unhealthy interest in her ever since her birth.
The second half of the book finds Thea sent off to that boarding school for magical incompetents (though things are not often what they seem in the series) where we’re introduced to a new setting and a new cast of secondary characters. Action starts to build more typically here as well, as we learn that the world is being threatened by a mysterious force that is killing people, including several of the school’s faculty who have been sent out to research and battle whatever it is. As one might expect, Thea and her friends (Magpie, a Pacific Northwestern Native American unable to perform her tribe’s ancestral magic; Ben, who sneezes uncontrollably whenever magic is around; and Tess and Terry, twins whose allergies to magic take the form of physical injury if touched or ingested (Tess) or spoken (Terry), play a major role in discovering and thwarting the threat.
To be honest, the two halves of the book are uneven in quality. The first half is mostly wonderful. The mythology is rich, the characterization full, the coming-of-age portrayed realistically and patiently, the tension while personal is compelling, the dialogue smoothly handled, and the physical detail sharp and vivid. The second half falters in many of the same areas the first half is so strong. None of Thea’s friends are drawn as sharply as Cheveyo or Grandmother Spider, the physical details are not as vivid, and the tension, while of the grander possible-end-of-life-as-we-know-it scale, is actually less compelling and its closure is relatively anti-climactic.
On a more basic level, the world-building is also not as strong. Despite its foreignness we feel much more on solid ground in the mystical worlds of Cheveyo and Grandmother Spider — they feel fully three-dimensional (or more). But the same isn’t true for Thea’s more modern world, despite its outward similarities to our own. It’s never quite clear how the society works, what the rules of magic in the world are, how the polities interact. There are references to various aspects, but nothing ever coalesces into a full and complete sense of a real world.
The second half, however, has its plusses as well. While the secondary characters never reach their full potential, one can see the opportunity for them to do so in the future based on what Alexander did with her earlier characters. Their interactions and dialogue all sound realistic — like these kids would speak rather than how many adults think they would speak. More Native American (Pacific Northwest this time) mythology is employed and, while not quite to the same effect as in the first half, it’s still a welcome breath of originality. And Thea’s newfound ability with computers — which up to this point had always been magically “inert”—melds the usual fantasy world of magic with the atypical world of computer technology. In fact, this “new” form of magic becomes the focus of book two, Spellspam, when someone learns how to send magical “spam” via email. At first the spam is merely prankish, but it soon grow more malicious and dangerous.
Like Gift of the Unmage, Spellspam is a bit uneven. Thea’s character remains fully formed and we continue to see her mature at a realistic pace, complete with self-doubt, mistakes, backsliding, regrets, etc. The side characters again vary in their depth, with several humorously, if quickly, drawn and others being a bit sketchy. The world-building problem remains and one hopes we start to get more details filled in about how this society works in book three. There is little of the richness of the Native American mythology in this book, and while one understands why Alexander couldn’t go to that well again, or at least, not as fully, it was such a strong aspect in book one that its absence makes itself felt here.
What does work is the complexity of the book’s final section, where Thea begins to more fully/directly confront the book’s villain. Up to this point, the email had been a necessary plot point but never really felt substantive; it lacked the heft, say, of the usual dark lord, encroaching army of demons, etc. The first half of book one made up for that with the internal conflict, but that wasn’t as strong here. But where book one faltered somewhat in its second half, Spellspam gets much, much stronger, attaining a richness, depth, and true emotional impact that close the book out strongly. And as with Gift of the Unmage, main plot points are resolved, but parallel ones are not, such as the Alphiri’s continued pursuit of Thea.
Worldweavers lacks the fullness of world creation that the great YA fantasies have, such as Leguin’s Earthsea or Alexander’s Prydain or Harry Potter (though I’d call HP good rather than great). And it doesn’t have the depth, say, of Pullman’s trilogy or the emotional impact of those or more slight fantasies such as Gregor the Overlander. But it does have a strong likeable central character, an original and intriguing mix of magic and technology, and a richly veined core of mythos. If she can put together a first half like book one and a second half like book two in the third of the series, she’ll have a true winner. Recommended.
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
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