In Duga's (Kiss of the Royal, 2018) YA fantasy novel, a teenager discovers that her childhood trauma has allowed her to forge a connection to a magical realm, and may help her find her missing mother.
Sixteen-year-old Briony "Brye" Redwrell is a competitive swimmer in Knoxville, Tennessee. She plans to spend the summer with her best friend, Isabelle "Izzie" Jennison. After a particularly tough meet, she learns that her grandmother, Willa Kaftan, has broken her leg. Willa lives alone in the Smoky Mountains, in an area called Firefly Valley. Brye's dad sends her to care for Willa, causing mixed emotions. Ten years ago, Brye experienced a house fire in the valley, during which she lost all her memories up to that point. Her mother, Heather, seemingly abandoned her family during the chaos. Thankfully, Izzie joins Brye on her excursion to the Smokies. Soon after they arrive, Brye learns that the charred remains of her old home are scheduled for demolition. Visiting the site triggers memories of the fire, and of her mother. She soon encounters an attractive young man whom she doesn't remember—yet his "mere touch" triggers a "powerful sense of nostalgia." After a supernatural event, Brye realizes that to uncover her past, she must learn to trust people, starting with the young man, who calls himself Alder. Duga conjures a classic American landscape and a sublimely sensuous adventure. The emotional complexity of loving a place as though it were a person—and vice versa—is embodied by this description of the energy radiating from Alder: "The essence of the Smokies...the world's best aftershave....it was distractingly intoxicating." Brye learns of realms beyond the purely physical, and meets a spirit emissary named Raysh, who appears as a translucent fox. Elegant fantasy components, such as "mana" (the aforementioned energy), elemental gates, and giant animal deities are reminiscent of the work of genre greats, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. There are occasional references to modern teenage life—to Instagram, for example—but they never intrude for long. A pleasant finale and the promise of further trips to Firefly Valley should please audiences.
This YA series opener creates a vivid, evocative foundation for a potential fantasy series.