Flora Fyrdraaca ov Fyrdraaca lives in one of the weirder versions of planet Earth on the, well, planet. And she’s one of the more normal thirteen-almost-fourteen-year-old girls you’ll ever meet. If you except the fact that she can do magic, of course.
Young Flora, nearing her fourteenth birthday and her Catorcena ceremony (where she’ll officially become an adult), lives in a rambling mansion call Crackpot. Many of the rooms can only be accessed magically, and Flora’s mother — a general of the Califa army — has banished the household’s magcial denizen, named Valefor. Without Valefor around to cook and clean and basically keep the mansion functional, the Fyrdraaca family (who used to be a great clan, but now number four), make use of just a handful of rooms, and just accept the fact that the place is falling apart.
Flora’s mother’s military duties often take her away from home for long stretches, dealing with the delicate political relations between the nation of Califa and the neighbouring Huitzil empire, which have turned Califa nearly into a client state. And so Flora is often left to care for her severely depressed and manic father — also a soldier, but one who was broken during his three years spent in a Huitzil prison camp — the same prison camp where Flora’s eldest sister (also named Flora) did not survive.
This is why Flora is often referred to as Flora Segunda. She’s literally the second Flora — conceived after her eldest sister’s death, as an attempt to replace the tragic loss.
Flora loves her parents and they, in their own way, love her back, but you can see that Flora has been born into a world of strong traditions and high expectations. It is expected that, when Flora turns fourteen, she’ll join the Warlord’s army and serve in the northern barracks. Flora’s mother, though she loves Califa and hates the oppressive Huitzil, is expected to do everything she can to keep the peace — even if it means capturing and executing rogue elements that could threaten that peace.
Some of these rogue elements are Califa’s old rangers — magical scouts who fought and did the most damage to the Huitzil empire in the old war. Under the terms of the peace accord, the rangers were outlawed and hunted down, but that hasn’t stopped romantic stories from being written about them, and filling Flora’s mind. She’s particularly enamoured by the tales of Nini Mo, the most powerful ranger of all, and her sidekick, Boy Hansgen. This interest is shared by Flora’s friend Udo, who can’t get enough of stories about the Dainty Pirate — a modern day criminal whose ship raids the coast of Califa, and manages to stay out of the Warlord’s reach.
On top of all this, there’s the Catorcena ceremony to prepare for, where Flora is expected to prepare the food, make her own dress, and read a speech before her assembled talking about her pride for her family. But how can she be proud when her home is a wreck, her family is barely speaking to each other, and the country subverts its own desires for freedom to placate its Huitzil overlords?
So, of course, Flora rebels. Exploring deeper into Crackpot, she comes upon the severely diminished denizen Valefor, and inadvertently offers up a portion of her own Will to strengthen him. She is almost immediately seduced by the things that Valefor can do — clean rooms with a sweep of her hand, cater instantly, prepare invitations, and even sew. This starts a complicated series of events, as Flora and Udo go behind her mother’s back to work to restore Valefor. In doing this, they discover that Flora’s Mother’s troops have captured the Dainty Pirate and intend to execute him in secret. Worse, they learn that the Dainty Pirate is, in reality, the ranger Boy Hansgen. Fresh from secretly defying her mother over Valefor, Flora hatches a desperate plan to rescue Boy Hansgen from prison. And, from there, Flora digs herself deeper and deeper into trouble, until it seems as though only a miracle will get her out.
Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora Segunda is surprisingly compelling reading. The secret lies in the perfectly normal narrator of Flora herself, as she deals in perfectly normal fashion with the very strange world that Wilce has created. It’s a richly detailed world — an alternate version of California, with elements of Spanish, Latin and modern English popping up in the language as if it has always been there, such as Flora’s Catorcena ceremony, or the fact that Flora’s home is near the “Pacifica Playa”, or the fact that the characters drink mochas. Then there is the everpresent (if downplayed) presence of magic. All of the major houses have denizens inside. Throughout the book, Flora learns ranger spells (even though they’re prohibited), and other technology is downplayed; there are no cars in this California and people get around on horsecar or horseback.
Finally, Wilce gives her world a sense of history. The Fyrdraaca family finds itself at the end of its proud line, and their mansion Crackpot is overloaded with its past. Another family has died out completely, leaving their house empty, and their denizen alone and possibly going dangerously insane. The political situation that’s at the heart of Flora’s mother’s story deals with events that happened decades before. Wilce doesn’t overload us with these elements. There is considerable tragedy here, but it’s held in check by the hope of the here and now. Wilce’s approach throws us into Flora’s world and lets Flora sweep us along. Even in Flora herself, we see the history she’s shared with her longtime friend Udo, rather than just being told. She’s comfortable enough with him to slip into his bed in purely platonic fashion in order to discuss various plans, and we can see how she’s known him for so long, she doesn’t notice that his own affection for her is changing into something more.
We accept these elements because Flora accepts them, and when the time comes for an explanation of them, we’re so familiar with these elements that we appreciate them more when their mystery is solved. All of this works because of Flora herself. She’s a compelling character — very young but surprisingly precocious, in spite of the expectations her world imposes on her. Her inexperience is both realistic and charming, as it leads her into all sorts of trouble, both serious and funny. Her voice is just the right mix of youthful and sardonic, and all the more compelling for the things that get past her attention, but not past the reader’s attention (such as Udo’s obvious and growing love for his best friend).
All of this produces a world that feels quite alien to our own, but one that also feels rich and ready to explore. The plot has a tendency to ramble, but the depth of Flora’s world and Flora herself hold things together. The story ends with many elements resolved, but many more beckoning. You know there is plenty of elements available for rich sequels. And, of course, there are.
Fans of worldbuilding novels, and fantasy novels that have a light touch with their fantasy, will find much to enjoy in Flora Segunda. The narrator is extremely compelling and the writing is rich. Go read Flora Segunda; you will be glad you did.