Review & Giveaway: Grail of the Summer Stars by Freda Warrington

Grail of the Summer Starsgrail of the summer
Freda Warrington
Tor Books
First Edition: April 23, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1871-8

If you like your fantasy science fiction deeply layered, sparkling and ethereal, do I have a book for you.  Grail of the Summer StarsFreda Warrington‘s newest installment of her Aetherial Tales series packs a huge wallop, and will satisfy not only those looking for the mystical in their reading, but also those with a love of romance, of intrigue and of art.

If you have read the other two volumes in the series, Elfland and Midsummer Night, you would have been better versed in Ms. Warrington’s multilayered worlds than I was, and had an inkling of what you were getting yourself into.  If, however, like me, you come to this as a first or stand-alone volume, know that you will not suffer one whit for having done so.  Except for a few characters having more weight in the story than what their arrival in Grail of the Summer Stars might suggest, there is no detriment – in the narrative or stylistically – to reading this book first, or by itself.

The story in Grail of the Summer Stars begins quietly, with a mystery bound up in bubble wrap: a triptych delivered without advance notice to Ms. Stevie Silverwood, manager of the Soames & Salter gallery and Museum of Metalwork on the outskirts of Birmingham, England.  Who painted it isn’t a mystery – the artist, Daniel Manifold, is an old college friend of Stevie’s.  But why he sent it, and what it portrays, is.  With its “vibrant wash of orange and red, lots of bright gold leaf reminiscent of a Byzantine icon”, and a center panel shaped like a Gothic arch, the piece is very striking.  Its mysterious appearance sets not only the stage of what is to come, but puts everything in motion:

The central image showed a goddess-like figure in a mountainous red desert.   In the foreground lay a tumble of stonework:  a fallen temple?  The female, stepping from behind the stump of a column, had auburn hair swirling around a pale golden face with glaring eyes.  A face or a mask?  Her complexion had the sheen of fur, and strong-boned features more feline than human.  A regal, feral cat deity.  One hand was holding a crystal sphere up to the heavens, the other pointing at a molten yellow fissure in the earth.

The brushstrokes were so precise and detailed that everything seemed to be in motion, vibrating and rushing around the central figure.  There was so much light and energy, it  hurt the eyes.

Little does Stevie know that this vision captured in pigment, and the visions in the panels surrounding this central image, are more than mere imaginings from a highly artistic brain: they are images of a distant but still painful past, and of a closer than realized future, not only of Earth, but also the other worlds linked to it by the Spiral.

Perhaps now you get an idea of the complexity of Ms. Warrington’s story (and this is just a hint).   These other worlds, the Spiral (which is the ever pulsing, ever flowing mystical fabric between the worlds), the identity of the woman in the painting and Stevie’s significance might seem to be enough for many writers, but add in squabbling royal siblings; gateways between the worlds and the gatekeepers that guard them; beings who almost never truly die but who must endure many permutations of rebirth, sometimes as wholly different creatures unaware of their previous lives; creatures both magical and mythical; a civilization lost in a cataclysmic political upheaval; shadowy villains and lingering threats; and the separation between mother and son, brother and brother, wife and husband, and you get a better idea of what you are in for in Grail of the Summer Stars.  Oh, and don’t forget romance – there’s a fair bit of romance in this book, as well.

Luckily Ms. Warrington handles all these layers well, introducing them simply and directly, then expanding our knowledge in credible and nuanced steps, leading the reader deeper into the histories of the individual players as well as the implications of their actions on our world, both immediately and in context of the lore that anchors the other worlds, as well.  While I did get somewhat lost in the intricate and ever unfolding aspects of the some of the creatures at first, and the different levels of beings, their conflicts and motives were always clear and coherent.

Stevie’s search for Daniel, and an explanation for the triptych appearing on her doorstep, suggests an even larger mystery, which is heightened when the evasive (and broodingly gorgeous) Adam Leith enters the picture.  We readers realize that Adam is more than he appears, being the Aetherial prince Mistangamesh Poectic Ephenaestus, who has acquired a new form after re-emerging from his human “death” in Scotland following a catastrophic conflict with his chaotic brother, Rufus Dionys Ephenaestus.

Aetherials called themselves semi-mortal, since they couldn’t fathom the strange paths of their lives.  If they were physically killed, the flesh might heal and return to life, but more often the soul-essence would flee the corpse and rest in elemental form for year or centuries.  Some would gradually take on solid form again, while others would be literally reborn.  One might even be born into a human family and not know any different, never awaken to his deeper self.  Or he might morph into animal shape, or fade into the Otherworld. Nothing was predictable.

Mistangamesh – “Mist”, for short – has also been drawn to Daniel’s iconic work since discovering it in an internet search, for it depicts, in part, the apocryphal fall of Mist’s home, Azantios; the goddess portrayed in the center panel is someone very familiar to him.  He and Stevie join forces – one searching for a friend, the other searching for answers – but it doesn’t take long before it becomes clear that the events surrounding Daniel’s disappearance harbor a much larger threat to not only Stevie and Mist, but the very fabric of life itself.

Written with lush, elegant prose, and filled with strong, engaging characters, Ms. Warrington has written a tale that is both universal and very personal, deftly weaving the dynamic of the needs of the individual against the well being of the whole, the fate of family, and the strength of friendship.  Yes, at times there can be glaring gaps in credibility (such as when a being who’s neck has been severed almost to the spine can still speak – and in eloquent sentences, no less), but in such a grand, sweeping tale, these occasional glitches can easily be forgiven.  It’s a small price to pay for entry into such a shimmering, far reaching and marvelous reality, of which our world is only a small, yet very important, part.   This is a wonderful book for anyone who feels (or hopes, or dreams) that there is more to our world than we know, that there are other lives and other realities that exist not only around us, but potentially within us, as well.

This giveaway is now complete. Congratulations to our winners!

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