MISTWOOD has been on my radar for close to a year now, if you can believe it. I've been monitoring its status updates on Amazon and GoodReads and checking Leah Cypess' site regularly for any news. There have been tantalizingly few details about this book floating around the verse. I knew it was YA fantasy. I knew it was about a girl who was a shifter. And I knew it took place in a kingdom in trouble. The back cover copy proclaims it, "For fans of Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Fire, Tamora Pierce, and Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books." Ahem. That combination right there is only like the holy triumvirate of YA fantasy awesome. And so it was with unmitigated glee that I started reading it the night it arrived.
She has no memory. No concept of an existence before the moment they came riding into the Mistwood to drag her back to a castle full of high walls, dark secrets, and the suffocating need of the prince. They call her Isabel. The Shifter. The mythical being who can take any form at a moment's notice, who is faster and stronger than any human, whose entire reason for existing is to protect the rulers of Samorna. From harm. From death. With her own life if necessary. And though she answers the insistent pull to protect Prince Rokan, Isabel cannot reconcile who she might be and what she might have been with who they expect her to be. Set apart by her uncertain status and the legend of her origins, she struggles to harness her abilities and come to grips with human emotions and motivations. Amid a swirl of court politics, scheming factions, and doubtful loyalties, the Shifter must race against time to save the man who would be king. A man she is bound to. A man she distrusts. A man she has come to call her friend.
First things first. The cover copy does not lie. Fans of Kristin Cashore, Tamora Pierce, and Megan Whalen Turner will definitely find much to delight among MISTWOOD's pages. Leah Cypess' debut novel is tense, intricately woven, and filled with an almost palpable sense of mystery and foreboding. The entire time I was reading it, I kept thinking to myself--anything could happen. I had no idea how things were going to play out. And I loved that about it. You literally have no idea who to trust. There are those you want to trust so badly, but are afraid to for fear of how much it will hurt if they betray you. And there are those you wouldn't put anything past, so devious do they appear. But all of them surprise you at one point or another. And at the heart of it all is a girl who is neither one thing nor another. Ms. Cypess does an excellent job of endearing Isabel to her readers, no mean feat when she is a supernatural being, a creature purportedly without feeling or even the basic understanding of human emotions. Despite this, I felt Isabel's emotions. With her I felt trapped. I felt confusion, longing, and a desperate drive to understand and to fulfill the measure of my existence.
A favorite passage early on:
Rokan took a deep breath. The directness of his gaze strengthened his resemblance to the man in the painting, though there was nothing cold or judgmental in his eyes. He was trying to appear as regal as he could, but uncertainty was written all over him, and his face was flushed from his argument with Clarisse.
"I wasn't able to wake you earlier, or I would have warned you. Nobody knows I went to the Mistwood. We think it would be best to keep your true identity a secret for now. I hope you're not offended."
"Of course not," said Isabel, who had no idea what her true identity was. "That seems wise."
"Rokan ran his hand over his hair and clutched the back of his neck. "Oh. Good." He hesitated again, then blurted, "I don't actually know that much about the Shifter."
Then you know more than I do, Isabel thought, and saw an opportunity. She gave him her most enigmatic smile and said, "Tell me what you do know."
"Most of it is legend. An immortal creature who protects the kings of Samorna with her wisdom and magic." He massaged the back of his neck. "When the realm is peaceful, the Shifter sometimes leaves the castle and goes to the Mistwood. Then there may be no Shifter for twenty, fifty, once even a hundred years. But when she is needed, she always comes."
"There's even a song about you," Clarisse put in. "It's very pretty, if you like the high notes."
Isabel ignored her. Based on her brief experience, that already seemed like the best way to deal with Clarisse. She stepped closer to the door and turned sideways, so that she could be closer to Rokan without allowing Clarisse or Will out of her line of sight.
Rokan dropped his hand to his side and continued. "You left ten years ago, and at the time you were called Isabel. I was a child then, but . . ." He faltered and glanced at his sister. "We weren't sure you would come back. When you left . . . there were circumstances."
Running through the snow, blood trailing behind her. Tears falling, not leaving a mark like the blood, and that seemed wrong. Pain. Terrible, terrible pain . . .
"Yes," Isabel said without thinking, "there were."
Rokan straightened, pulling away from the wall. He, Will, and Clarisse looked at one another. They were afraid. Rokan and Clarisse both hid it almost well enough, but Will's face was near white.
Rokan recovered first, leaning back gingerly against the wall, trying to act casual. "So why did you leave?"
Isabel lifted her eyebrows. "I am not going to tell you that, Your Highness."
Rokan's hand tightened against his leg, but all he said was, "I understand."
Isabel highly doubted it.
I was glued to the page with this one, guys. Cypess' writing is quiet, yet gripping. The world itself felt truly unique and, as is the case with my very favorite fantasies, as though it possessed a long and winding history that precedes and encompasses this time and these people. By the time I reached the point of no return, I had abandoned all hope of guessing the outcome and simply devoured the final emotionally charged pages. With a cast of conflicted, compelling characters and a mystery so serpentine your mind is left spinning with explanations and implications, MISTWOOD is a bewitching and beguiling debut. I loved it.