This is yet another review for my Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.
What is this novel about?
Alfreda Sorensson, who lives in the Michigan Territory in the early 19th century, has begun learning how to her her Gift (i.e. magic) from her cousin, Marta Helgisdottir Donaltsson. They come from a long line of ‘practitioners’ i.e. magic users – from Sweden. The descendants of European immigrants living on the frontier rely on magic to defend themselves from the hostile Indians, specifically the Miami and the Shawnee. Since Alfreda is entering puberty, she has attracted a poltergeist, which constantly annoys her.
However, there are worse things out there than an annoying poltergeist. In the Indiana territory, there are the Hudsons, a family of British sorcerers – that is, practitioners of evil magic – led by an immortal patriarch. They kidnap girls around the age of thirteen who possess the Gift to take as wives to steal their power and ensure that their children will also have strong Gifts. And Alfreda is exactly the type of girl they want to take.
What sexual and/or violent content is there in this novel?
There is no sex. The protagonist is going through puberty (she is thirteen), there are threats of sexual violence, there are vague allusions to sexual violence off-page, and there is an instance of non-consensual kissing. There is a graphic childbirth scene (which is not sexual or violent per se, but has a lot of pain, danger, and bodily fluids). There are also instances of on-page violence in the story (drugging, strangling, etc.), but nothing more gory than the childbirth scene.
Tell me more about this novel.
It’s the second book in the Night Calls series.
Have you read the first book?
Why didn’t you start with the first book?
Because I don’t have a copy of the first book.
Why do you have a copy of the second book in the series but not the first book?
Because someone gave me a copy of the second book in the series, not the first book. And I recalled that it worked pretty well as a standalone, since I did not feel I missed much by starting with the second book.
‘Recalled’? Is this the book that you first read back in the 1990s?
Bingo! At the time I first read this, I was younger than the 13-year-old protagonist. In fact, I distinctly remember the protagonist being older than me, so this time around it was weird to read about this 13-year-old who I am used to thinking of as being ‘older’ than me.
Anyway, I decided to re-read this one not just because I conveniently still have a copy of it, but because I have a nostalgia for this one which I won’t have for the other books in the series.
So spill it! What is the novel like?
The novel can be split into two parts – the first part is mainly about Alfreda learning about the Wise Arts (i.e. magic) as well teaching her younger brothers about mundane survival skills. The second part is about Alfreda and the Hudsons. However, the two parts are connected – in the first part, we learn about Alfreda’s skills, and in the second part, we watch Alfreda put those skills to use.
I remember, when I read this as kid, I thought it was pretty cool that there was a fantasy story set on the American frontier. Now, as a more educated adult, I think I better appreciate some of the historical subtleties – for example, instead of following the current convention of white people be a monolithic group, it clearly presents different groups of European immigrants as being different (which is consistent with how people in the 19th century United States viewed race and ethnicity). Also, having read about MammothFail, I appreciate that not all white authors who choose to write fantasy on the American frontier include Indians in their worldbuilding. I am not giving Katharine Eliska Kimbriel a cookie for this, simply noting that others have done much worse than her in this regard.
I also found the dynamics of the Hudson family very interesting. Of course, they are creepy as heck – they kidnap, marry, and rape 13-year-old girls to sustain their power – but that leads to a complex set of relationships. Some of the Hudson women have attained a degree of power within the family, some of the kidnapped brides have found ways to resist their captivity, some of the young men are afraid that they will be preyed upon by their elders and respond by trying to dominate the young women OR forming alliances with the young women, and so forth. I like Felicity, a captured bride who seems mentally ill and is secretly using wild magic to protect herself, and it’s not clear whether she is able to use wild magic because she is really is mentally ill, or that she feigns mental illness to prevent the Hudsons from figuring out that she can use magic beyond their control.
And overall, I enjoyed re-reading it, just as I had enjoyed reading it the first time.
This is a bit tricky … on the asexuality content rating scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I am rating this as a 1 * – yes, that is an asterisk.
The asterisk means that, in the absence of Word of Ace, I would think ‘hmmmm, I suppose it’s possible that Alfreda is on the ace-spectrum, she does seem more ace than most 13-year-old girls, but it’s not conclusive’. As it so happens, Word of Ace states that Alfreda is demisexual. This novel, in isolation, suggests asexuality more than demisexuality to me, but it’s the nature of demisexuality that it can look an awful lot like asexuality, especially at younger ages.
So, what are the things in the novel which makes me think “hmmm, maybe ace?” Mostly, it’s Alfreda’s relationship with her friend Idelia. Idelia is just a year older, yet she is already engaged, and is very enthusiastic about marrying this boy. Alfreda does not relate to the enthusiasm.
That was hard for me to understand, her longing for marriage. Yes, I could see wanting your own home, but I had so much still to learn, I couldn’t imagine getting married yet. Marriage was followed by babies, unless you used a decoction of Queen Anne’s lace to keep from getting pregnant. And a baby would slow my lessons.
A mistake about a man could be a nightmare for a practitioner. I was in no hurry – I didn’t want to make any mistake.
Of course, the reasoning in the above passage could also be used by a non-ace 13-year-old, but the subtlety I noticed is that Alfreda does not list having a mate in the ‘pro’ part of her thoughts on ‘pros and cons of marriage’.
There is a later scene, when two handsome young men are visiting. Alfreda’s reaction, after having her friend Idelia walk her through how to receive them, is:
I had no chance of learning this game. Could it ever matter to me more than my lessons?
Only a little while longer. I might have been the only girl in a week’s riding who was trying to get rid of two good-looking young men, but there you have it. The struggle not to say anything odd always tired me, and they’d stayed almost an hour.
In the scenes with the young men, Idelia and Marta seem to assume that Alfreda will enjoy the attention of the young men, whereas Alfreda mainly finds it really awkward. Furthermore, she finds the situation confusing, and needs Idelia to explain it. This to me is a sign of possible aceness.
In short, the most ace thing about this novel is that Alfreda and Idelia seem like a mild version of the Ace Foil trope.
Was this written by an asexual?
I don’t know.
Hey Sara, do you like this novel?
Yes! It’s not one of my favorites, but it was a pleasure to re-visit this tiny little corner of my childhood.