Spark: Faerie Queens and Gamer Girls, Part Deux

Back in October, I reviewed Anthea Sharp’s Feyland trilogy. I’d gotten the first two Feyland books as part of Story Bundle’s young adult bundle, and enjoyed them so much that I got the third one from Amazon. This month, Ms. Sharp offered to send me an advance review copy of Spark, the first book in her new spin-off series, Feyguard. I tore through it in three days, loved it, and now as per my word, I am reviewing it.

Spark, by Anthea Sharp. Image via Goodreads

Superstar gamer Spark Jaxley’s life might look easy, but she’s part of an elite few who guard a shocking secret; the Realm of Faerie exists, and its dark magic is desperate for a foothold in the mortal world.

Aran Cole hacks code and sells his gaming cheats on the black market. It’s barely a living, and one he’s not proud of. But when he turns his skills to unlocking the secrets behind Feyland—the most exciting and immersive game on the market—he discovers power and magic beyond his wildest dreams.

Spark’s mission is clear; pull Aran from the clutches of the fey folk and restore the balance between the worlds. But can she risk her life for someone who refuses to be rescued?

~ Spark (Feyguard #1) on Goodreads

The elements I loved from the Feyland trilogy continue in Feyguard. Even at the professional level, Spark’s gender is never made an issue in regard to her gaming ability. Sure, Spark is every male (and many a female) gamer’s celebrity crush, but the fact that she’s a pro gamer girl isn’t treated as unique or unusual. She’s one of four top gamers, two male and two female, backed by her corporate sponsor. I thought it was particularly smart of Sharp to make Spark’s main human antagonists a team of boy/girl twins. Roc Terabin by himself would’ve made the rivalry seem like a battle of the sexes. Cora Terabin by herself would’ve come across as stereotypical catty girl-hate. Together, they’re just plain horrible people. We want to see Spark come out on top not because Roc is a boy or Cora is a Mean Girl, but because Spark is good and the Terabins suck.

Femmephobia continues to be absent, too. Spark’s trademark is her bright magenta hair. Her personality is more assertive and tomboyish than Jennet’s, but this isn’t portrayed as meaning Spark is stronger. Although Spark is more of a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl on her own time, she sucks it up and wears garish spandex costumes and theatrical makeup for public appearances because it’s part of her job. I really like the way Spark’s attitude toward her rockstar life as a pro gamer is handled. She sometimes acknowledges feeling fatigued, overwhelmed, lonely, and rootless , but it doesn’t come across as whining. She takes these feelings in stride as part of a very rewarding package deal that she willingly signed up for.

Like Jennet and Tam, part of Spark and Aran’s attraction to each other is their mutual love of gaming. But unlike Tam, the noble knight in shining armor, black hat hacker Aran falls for Spark while trying to hack the game she was hired to promote. They meet again after he opens the breach she fought to close in the last book. Their inevitable conflict still avoids Battle of the Sexes and Strong Female Character Who Doesn’t Need A Man’s Help territory. While Spark and Aran’s goals start out at odds, their personalities are a perfect match. When they can fight for a common goal, they’re a perfect team. Made up of believably imperfect gamers.

Feyland itself, both the game and the faerie land it borders, remains as engaging and well-developed as in the first trilogy. Which brings me to the only real weakness I’ve noticed in these books: the human world in this fictional future universe isn’t nearly as well-developed. It’s more noticeable in this book than in the first three since Spark is actually traveling this world as part of her corporate sponsorship gig. Aran’s descriptions of his home city are about as generic as possible. Overall, though, this isn’t too distracting since the human world isn’t the focus here. This story is about characters who live for escaping into a computer-generated fantasy world. In other words, the kind of people who devour urban fantasy novels, faerie folklore, and RPGs like Feyland. And as I mentioned in my review of the first trilogy, I like that this future is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. It’s basically the present, but with better cars and gaming systems.

Spark is due for release on December 15th, 2013. If you like fantasy, video games, and YA novels with characters who aren’t a carbon copy of every other YA cast, add this one to your Christmas list!

Thalia’s Musings 3 is halfway done!

The rough draft, that is. I’ve drafted 8 of a projected 16 chapters. I’ll give more timeline details as I have them, but for now I can say that I’m looking at a Spring 2014 release.  Like the first two volumes, Volume 3 will be posted serially at ThaliasMusingsNovels.com for free and sold for Kindle and NOOK. Hopefully I’ll have more progress reports around the first of the year.

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Feyland: Faerie Queens and Gamer Girls

Cover of Feyland:the Dark Court, book 1 of 3. Image via Amazon.

I discovered Anthea Sharp’s Feyland books in Story Bundle’s young adult bundle. The excerpt from the prologue of Feyland: The Dark Realm piqued my interest in that it avoided a lot of cliches that annoy me. Its futuristic setting didn’t suck significantly more or less than the present. The teenage heroine, Jennet Carter, wasn’t described as a misunderstood outsider. There was no femmephobia to be seen. The narrative didn’t talk about how Jennet wasn’t pretty and then describe her as a conventionally attractive white girl. (It describes her as a conventionally attractive white girl and acknowledges that she’s pretty. Which I have no problem with.) And most of all, Jennet being both a conventionally attractive girl and an awesome gamer was completely taken for granted. I wanted to read more.

Okay, that wasn’t all that made me want to read more. Jennet was portrayed as an awesome gamer without being a perfect gamer. The story opens with Jennet having almost completed an unreleased immersive virtual reality game called Feyland. She’s facing the final boss. And then she loses, which, in a touch of realism, she expected to happen. Because everyone loses to the final boss the first time. Jennet expects the game to load last save and let her fight the boss again.

But no such luck. The final boss, the Dark Queen, isn’t just a video game character. She is the actual fey Queen of the Dark (or Unseelie) Court, and she’s using the game as a portal to the human realm so she can feed off of humans’ “mortal essence”. Humans like Jennet. Who is now doomed to die in the real world unless she can meet the Queen’s demand for a “champion” and face her in battle again.

This leads Jennet to classmate and fellow gamer Tam Linn. If you’re familiar with Scottish ballads (I wasn’t), you know where this is going. Either way, you know Tam is going to be Jennet’s love interest. I like the way Sharp writes their relationship as characters and even more as gamers. In-game, Jennet is a mage and Tam is a knight. There are no straw feminist moments when Tam puts himself between Jennet and whatever is attacking them. Both of these experienced gamers recognize that Tam is just playing a tank, while Jennet’s squishy wizard stays safely out of range and does damage and crowd control from a distance. Tam messes up sometimes. Jennet messes up sometimes. Both of them have each other’s backs. And while their shared love of gaming is a big part of their mutual attraction, at no point is a cute girl who likes fantasy and video games given unicorn status.

In fact, it’s established early on in the book that Jennet is one of several female gamers at her new school, including Tam’s best friend Marny. Marny is another favorite thing about this series. First, she’s tall and plus-sized (the third book implies Samoan ancestry) and is proud of her body. We first meet her when she’s trying to design an avatar and is upset that the game won’t let it be fatter. Second, while she’s initially suspicious about wealthy Jennet’s motives for hanging out with ghetto kids like her and Tam, she isn’t catty or insecure about the difference in their appearance. We never get any indication that Marny resents Jennet’s thinness or blondeness. Third, Marny’s combination of gaming skills and femaleness is taken for granted as much as Jennet’s. And possibly the thing I love most about Marny’s character…she is not romantically interested in Tam. At all. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, a young adult series with no love triangle! A guy and a girl are like brother and sister and neither wants to be anything else! And the girl develops a genuine friendship with her best friend’s girlfriend! This dynamic continues throughout the two sequels, Feyland: The Bright Court and Feyland: The Twilight Kingdom.

I can’t talk much about this aspect of Feyland’s awesomeness without giving too many spoilers: the way the series draws on real British Isles mythology. Tam’s name and a major plot point in the first book come from “The Ballad of Tam Lin,” which Sharp includes in Feyland: The Dark Realm‘s appendices. Feyland itself is divided between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Archetypical fey folk like Puck, the Wild Hunt, and changelings appear throughout the series in pivotal roles.

The first of a new series in the Feyland universe, Feyguard, is due for release on November 30, 2013. Spark centers on Spark Jaxley, a female professional gamer who’s introduced in Feyland: The Twilight Kingdom. If Anthea Sharp continues her winning combination of great characters, great use of folklore, and great depictions of gaming, I’m sure I’ll love her new series as much as the first.