When we meet 12-year-old Eliza Tok, she seems like an ordinary girl playing hooky with her best friend. But nothing is as it appears in Catherine Egan’s debut novel for young readers.
Though temporarily settled, Eliza has lived a life of dislocation with her nomadic father and knows little about her mother, a sorceress who died when Eliza was only two years old. Nevertheless, she is content, unaware that her father has been hiding her from a difficult destiny.
Egan does an able job building the world of Tian Di, a place where fairies, witches, and other magical beings unhappily co-exist with humans. To protect the humans from enslavement and war, benevolent magical beings called Mancers are in the process of splitting Tian Di into two worlds: one for humans, the other for beings of power. But the process is slow, and humanity continues to be in danger.
Despite her father’s efforts, the Mancers locate Eliza and bring her to their Citadel to begin her training as a sorceress. It is revealed that her destiny, like her mother’s before her, is to protect the human world. But there is a problem: Eliza cannot do magic.
When an evil sorceress (the same one that killed her mother) kidnaps Eliza’s father, the teen is determined to save him, journeying through dark forests until at last she comes to the arctic prison where her father is being held. There Eliza confronts the evil sorceress and learns the shocking source of her power.
Fans of Harry Potter will undoubtedly spot some blatant parallels: a child unaware of her history and powers, destined to battle against an evil figure to whom she feels mysteriously drawn. However, the tone here is otherworldly, the setting at once archaic and futuristic. The plot relies heavily on illusory inventions and dreamlike scenes that hint at a deeper message about truth, love, and the ability to recognize each.
This first book in the Tian Di series succeeds when Eliza is sharply in focus, but whenever the point of view wanders the detailed plot becomes clunky. For the most part, however, this fast-paced, fantastical adventure about a strong-willed, intelligent girl will keep readers turning pages.