Caught in Crystal – Patricia C. Wrede

While the Lyra books do constitute a series, as I understand it and as I remember it they are also each standalone novels. Put together, they relate the long history of Lyra; taken separately, they are perfectly readable each unto itself.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Patricia C. Wrede, and I liked this book, a lot. But I didn’t love it as much as I expected. There was nothing huge, but a handful of small things – like Kayl, on watch over her camp at night, sitting and staring into the fire while she tries to order her thoughts, thereby destroying her night vision completely. It specifically says she is watching the flames – so anyone could have come up behind her and knifed her in the back, or made as much noise as they wanted approaching because, no longer able to see in the dark at all, she would have been slow to react. It was just a tiny scene – but so much is made of the fact that she is a highly trained elite warrior that this tiny scene left a huge impact.

Another small thing that irritated: a mention that someone who had been wounded spent four days in bed. The reason this annoyed me was that there were no beds then and there; the group was living rough in a campsite, so what he actually did was probably spend four days kept immobile in a nest of blankets and other people’s cloaks on a pallet they’d cobbled together, on the ground.

One aspect of the story that bugs me a little is one for which it is, itself, not really to blame; it’s more the mass of fiction in general, not just this writer’s and not just fantasy. It is a touch of the Mary Sues, in which there is one character who the opposite gender wants and the same gender wants to be. Kayl was very happily married to Kevran, who is some years dead as this story begins. It very quickly becomes clear that her neighbor and friend, Jirod, quietly loves her and would be very happy to fill the role of second husband. Then Kevran’s old comrade Glyndon comes back into her life, and it quickly becomes obvious to the reader if not to Kayl that he loves her. It’s useful for the plot, of course, for the attachments to be formed, or Glyndon’s at least; it might have been more realistic and believable had Jirod simply been a solid friend and neighbor (perhaps with a hopeful eye toward bedding her). My complaint is that this seems to be the situation in a too-large number of books I’ve read lately – a symptom, maybe, of a sort of sharp focus in which the main female character of the story is just about the only female character (in this case the only available adult human female).

It would be interesting to have a little more information on Kayl’s past as an innkeeper with her husband. Kevran was a Varnan, and because of past wars Varnans are generally viewed with the sort of automatic hatred as Germans and Japanese were in the 40’s. It might have slowed down the story, but without it I can’t help wondering how they managed; setting up shop in the small village of Copeham, even without much of an accent, I would expect to be significant.

Actually, that leads to another point: this might have benefited by being told in two books, or one book told in two discrete parts, rather than being set in the later timeline covering past events in extensive flashbacks. Characters’ deaths would have had more impact if they were unexpected, rather than remembered; it seemed as though there was a tremendous amount going on in that earlier journey, from Kayl’s introduction to the love(s) of her life to the beginning of the end of the Sisterhood’s power, that begged for better exposition.

It is a well-told story, with likeable and believable characters. I like Kayl and the life she’s carved out for herself, and the way her story is told. I like Bryn and the Wyrd, and want more about them. Glyndon’s combination of brashness and I like the relationship between Kayl and her past, and with the Sisterhood; I like that they’re a bit bad-ass, and very few are the warm and motherly types that are the go-to archetype for female mages (especially Coranna – I like that she’s an unapologetic bitca). I even like Mark and Dara, Kayl’s children – they read as genuine children without crossing the line into “annoying and should be deleted”, if perhaps a bit too here-and-now in their language; they sometimes sound like they’re about to ask for a Coke and ten bucks to go to the movies. (I believe it was Mark who referred to Coranna as “weird”, which felt very 20th-21st century and also clashed with the race Wyrd.) There are plenty of nits to be picked – I think Caught in Crystal is far from Ms. Wrede’s best work, but still very enjoyable.

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