Happy Halloween everyone!
Hope you are having a fun day full of delicious treats. Today I'm happy to share my review of AJ Lancaster's upcoming book The Lord of Stariel which is set to be released on November 1, 2018 along with a sneak peak of the book!
I found The Lord of Stariel by AJ Lancaster a very pleasant read. Lancaster’s narrative paralleled with Garth Nix’s voice of humor and great sense of adventure.
The Lord of Stariel’s main protagonist, Hetta, has a strong personality that certainly comes in handy when it comes to handling her family dynamics. Lancaster takes his story through surprising passages as readers follow alongside Hetta’s journey through Stariel where we meet fae and mortals alike.
I look forward to seeing more world building in book two!
From the book....
An Ominous Prologue
King Aeros approached the Gate, boots echoing on the polished marble floor. For three centuries, the Gate had stood firm against everything he could throw at it. Now, though…
He fanned out his wings in a glory of silver and crimson feathers. Behind him, his court’s interest sharpened, but not a wing, tail, horn, or ear among its various members twitched. They knew not to distract him—or risk drawing his ire if the Gate resisted him again. King Aeros smiled. A well-trained court was truly a thing of joy, but they need not have worried. Obviously, he would not try this publicly without being certain of the result; he’d run his own private tests last night.
Still, his court did not need to know that. He ran his fingers down the stone columns, savouring their palpable anticipation, following the pattern of oak leaves. There were no oaks in Faerie, but this Gate did not lead to one of Faerie’s many kingdoms.
His touch fell upon a stone acorn buried among the leaves. He drew up ropes of magic, filling the air with his signature of storms and metal, and twisted. The space between the stone columns shimmered.
The Gate activated.
King Aeros paused for effect, taking a moment to sweep his long silver-white hair back from his face, the jewels woven into the braids chiming gently as he did so. Then, with deliberate slowness, he extended his hand. It passed through the shimmer and disappeared. He pulled it back, inspecting the faint hint of moisture on his skin; it was raining on the other side. Mortal rain.
Closing his hand into a fist, he turned back to the court, letting rivulets of storm charge wash over his wings in triumph, the lightning tamed to his will. He spread his primaries to maximise the impact. Drama should accompany this sort of announcement.
“The Iron Law is revoked. The Mortal Realm is open to us once again.” His smile widened.
It was not a nice smile.
Chapter 1: Stariel House
Hetta Valstar rummaged through her makeup bag and frowned. Was cherry a sombre enough shade? Or was it too cheerful? Maybe a paler shade would be better. It was easy to visualise a demure rose, which meant it would be equally easy to illuse her lips to appear the same colour. But if someone was rude enough to inspect Hetta with a quizzing glass, they’d know it for illusion. My aunts will almost certainly be that rude. In fact, they’d probably disapprove of real lipstick almost as much as the illusory kind; Hetta doubted the North was up to date with Southern fashions. Perhaps no lipstick at all would be preferable.
Hetta began emptying her bag of its contents. She’d just spotted the lipstick tube when the train crossed the border into Stariel Estate. Between one second and the next, a tidal wave of homecoming surged over her. She gasped, dropped the bag, and groped for the side of the bunk bed. The world spun.
Stariel. All the Valstars had at least a touch of the land-sense, but she’d underestimated how it would feel to have that connection snap back into place. A part of her that had lain dormant for years burst into life, as alarming and exhilarating as a second heartbeat. Home, it pulsed. Home, in direct counterpoint to the fact that the estate wasn’t home anymore. How could she have forgotten the intensity of it? All those years in the South—where the idea of a land magically connecting with its people would be deemed preposterous—had dimmed the memory.
She leaned against the bunk, heart pounding, and tried to centre herself. Lipstick. I was searching for lipstick. It had rolled out of the bag and under her berth. She knelt, cursing the dress’s unyielding hemline. The land’s vast presence loomed over her, both familiar and alien, as she fished about haphazardly for the lipstick, three-quarters distracted.
Her land-sense slowly settled into its accustomed place, taking that first rush of intensity with it. Despite Hetta’s unrelenting—and unwanted—sense of homecoming, the estate itself didn’t so much as flicker as it accepted her back. No emotion at all emanated from it. Hetta tried not to feel a tiny bit disappointed at Stariel’s lack of reaction, even though it was egotistical to expect otherwise; she was, after all, just one of many Valstars. It probably hadn’t even noticed she’d been gone for so long. Did it know why she was here now, why everyone of Valstar blood was swarming back? Her stomach clenched, a slow feeling of dread settling, and she angrily shook her head. Where was the dashed lipstick?
Hetta mentally poked at her land-sense as her fingers brushed the cool metal tube. Well, at least Stariel accepted me back without a fuss. Perhaps her family would take their cue from the land; neutral acceptance would be preferable to the disapproving reception she feared was coming.
She stood, weighing the lipstick in one hand. They have no power over me now, she reminded herself firmly. I am a grown and independent woman. She’d built a life for herself outside Stariel’s grasp—a life she’d be returning to in two weeks, after the Choosing. Surely she and her relatives could maintain civility for two weeks? Especially since her father wouldn’t be there.
My father is dead. Stariel’s lord is dead.
The words struck soft as feathers. They weren’t real enough yet to have weight, though they’d hummed in the background for a little over twelve hours now. Dead.
She opened her mirror-compact with a snap. This was no time for wool-gathering. The train would reach Stariel Station soon, and she needed to be ready by then. But exactly what form should her readiness take? She drew in a long, steadying breath, filling herself with determination. Her family would see only a confident, put-together young woman when she arrived. And a fashionable one too, she decided. Her aunts’ sensibilities could go hang. I don’t care what they think of me.
A tiny voice pointed out that she was spending an awful lot of time worrying about what to wear for someone who didn’t care what her relatives thought of her. She ignored it and focused on carefully applying the cherry colour. By the time her lips were painted, the mirror showed a picture of perfect composure. Let Aunt Sybil call the colour vulgar; she wouldn’t recognise glamourous sophistication if it bit her on the nose! Hetta pursed her lips in satisfaction and began to pack up her things.
When the train stopped at Stariel Station, Hetta was the only passenger to alight. A handful of assorted goods were unloaded along with her trunk, presumably awaiting pickup, before the train pulled away from the station. Hetta watched it until it curved around a bend and disappeared, taking her tangible connection to the South with it and leaving her entirely alone.
Small sounds magnified with the train’s absence—jarringly natural sounds, rather than those of the city she’d become accustomed to. She swallowed, feeling suddenly small and out of place. Wind rustled in the bracken, and in the distance came the baaing of sheep. Stariel Station was some distance from Stariel Village, properly known as Stariel-on-Starwater, and there was only farmland and forest in sight.
It was only then that Hetta realised no one knew she needed collecting from the station.
“Drat.” She’d forgotten to arrange it in the scramble to pack and book a ticket on the sleeper train. The telegram notifying her of her father’s death had arrived only the day before, in the break between the matinee and evening performances. I was performing illusions without even knowing he was dead. The thought slid in, quiet and unsettling as a ghost—and just as unnecessarily morbid. It made not a jot of difference, so why dwell on it?
She arranged her scarf more securely around her neck. In Meridon, the great Southern capital, the weather was still mild, but here in the North the air held the bite of coming winter.
Would any of her family think to meet the sleeper train after sending that telegram? After all, it was the only way for Hetta to return home, and they must be expecting her. But she didn’t fancy sitting with her luggage in the bitter wind on the strength of that hope. If no one was already here waiting for her, then whoever had sent the telegram hadn’t told Wyn, Stariel’s butler as well as Hetta’s friend, that she’d been summoned. Wyn would never leave her here to wait in the cold. That meant she was probably relying on Aunt Sybil to remember her, since the terseness of the telegram had been very much in that aunt’s style.
Aunt Sybil wouldn’t deliberately forget about Hetta, would she? Perhaps she just hadn’t made the logical connection between sending the telegram and the arrival of the sleeper train the next morning. The oversight would be understandable, with everyone preoccupied with funeral and Choosing arrangements.
Perhaps there was a public telephone somewhere nearby. Her spirits lifted at this thought, though she didn’t know whether her father had seen fit to install the new technology at Stariel House. There’d been no telephone line when she’d left. But it was worth a try. She burrowed her hands into her coat pockets and went in search.
Ten unfruitful minutes later, she concluded there was no public telephone. But the ticket office would have one inside, surely? She checked her watch again—it was just before eight o’clock on Monday morning. What time did the office open? Memories of the village stores’ opening schedules didn’t fill her with optimism. Unlike Meridon, where one could depend on stores opening at the same time each day, as advertised, Stariel marched to a more flexible drumbeat.
She went over to examine the goods that had been unloaded from the train. They consisted of such thrilling items as the mailbag and a small crate marked ‘Smithson’s Manufacturing’. In Meridon, someone would have taken charge of them as soon as they were delivered. Here, it was anyone’s guess when someone might be along to collect them. It didn’t help her, but she couldn’t help smiling at the more lackadaisical attitude of the countryside.
Of course, there was one other way she could attract attention. She pulled off her left glove and stared thoughtfully at her palm. Concentrating, she called up an image she’d used in the play yesterday: glittering purple snake-demons writhing in smoke. She’d meant to summon an illusion only a few inches high, more as an idle thought than any serious attempt at a signal, but the snake-demons that emerged were as tall as she was. They burst from her in a riot of colour, their eyes glowing with life, scales realistic enough that they flashed in the weak sunlight. Startled, she snuffed them out of existence and frowned at the space they’d filled. She’d fed the illusion too much power—and a Master of Illusion should not make such a miscalculation. She must be more rattled than she’d realised. That was the first principle of magic, after all: controlling one’s emotions.
She took a few deep breaths, though she already felt quite calm. Should she send a giant signal leaping fifty feet into the sky? On the one hand, someone would be bound to come and investigate. On the other, since her decision to train in magic had been a key factor in her exile, it probably wasn’t the best way to begin her visit. Besides, it’s childish to deliberately try to shock my family at such a time, she told herself sternly. Even if it’s still completely nonsensical of them to disapprove of my choices, given how magical Stariel is! But she knew the cases weren’t the same, much as she might rail against the unfairness of it. Quite apart from the magic, Stariel wasn’t a well-born woman working in a theatre house. Dens of iniquity and loose morals, Hetta thought with a smile. She’d quite enjoyed the loose morals, truth be told.
She’d just decided to walk towards the village in search of someone when the whirring sound of a vehicle came from the road. She went to wave it down, but it proved unnecessary. The vehicle, one of the new kineticars, was clearly heading for the station. The kineticar pulled up, and a man Hetta knew well got out. He was large and broad-shouldered, with cherubic brown curls, warm hazel eyes, and a ready smile that Hetta knew from personal experience could set hearts a-flutter.
“Angus!” she burst out as he came towards the station. “Oh, how glad I am to see you.”
It took a few seconds for comprehension to replace confusion on the man’s face.
“Henrietta Valstar! I nearly didn’t recognise you.” His gaze travelled swiftly over her person, from her neatly styled auburn hair to her smart black boots, warming with approval as he took in her trim figure. “By Simulsen, Hetta, you’ve turned out well.”
“Yes, I know.” She held out her arms and made a show of making a half-pirouette for his inspection. “Feel free to continue complimenting me.” Angus laughed, and her heart gave a traitorous flutter. She’d been hopelessly infatuated with Angus as a gawky teen; he’d been oblivious to the interest of someone he saw as a mere schoolgirl. He wasn’t looking at her like a schoolgirl now. “But I ought to call you Lord Penharrow now, hadn’t I?” She’d heard he had succeeded his father to Penharrow Estate, Stariel’s neighbour, three years ago.
Lord Angus Penharrow broke into a broad grin, showing the dimple in his left cheek. She’d forgotten the unfairly attractive impact of that dimple. “Nay, you’d best call me Angus. It makes me feel ancient to have you calling me ‘Lord Penharrow’. Unless you wish me to call you Miss Valstar. I don’t want to offend your notions of propriety.”
Hetta laughed. “You have no idea, Angus, of the impropriety I’ve been involved with these last few years. The shoe is on the other foot. No doubt I’ll scandalise the locals with my modern ways.”