“Asperfell,” the first of a new trilogy by Jamie Thomas, is an enjoyable fantasy about a young woman who must rescue a prince from a prison for mages (wizards), after the king has condemned magic and divided the kingdom of Tiralaen (which reminds me of Tir Asleen in the movie “Willow”). There are a lot of familiar tropes, elements from “A Song of Ice and Fire” – if it were considerably less graphic – Harry Potter or Naomi Novik’s “Uprooted,” but the second half of the book is quite original, and the lead character Briony is more than likeable enough to get you there.
The daughter of King Keric’s advisor, she’s a tomboy who frequently eavesdrops on her father’s discussions and befriends a spy named Cyprias. When the cruel young king’s fear of mages leads him to hunt them down along with their sympathizers, Briony’s family sends her away to live with an aunt in the countryside. This is supposedly just because of her father’s disagreements with the king, but it’s obvious to the reader that it’s really because Briony is a mage herself and has no idea. Here she grows up wild and free, until the day the king’s men suddenly arrive to arrest her and her world turns upside down.
A last minute rescue by Cyprias ends with her being expelled to Asperfell – an ancient, magical “prison” (more like an enforced commune) inside another realm, where mages who have committed serious crimes are stuck for life. It is here that King Keric’s brother, Prince Elyan, has been moping around since he was convicted of murdering their father as an adolescent. Cyprias has tasked her with the impossible: breaking Elyan out and bringing him back to Tiralaen to challenge the throne, despite the fact that she has no clue how to use her magic and no one has ever escaped Asperfell.
I thoroughly enjoyed following along with Briony as she explores the gothic castle-prison, with its many secrets, odd characters, and lurking ghosts of long-dead mages. It’s like a much more dangerous Hogwarts! Asking stupid questions and struggling to learn even the most basic magic, she befriends a mysterious necromancer and gradually pulls together a small team of prisoners determined to help.
I’m looking forward to the sequel, even though the world of Asperfell is so interesting that I don’t really want them all to go back to Tiralaen! I especially loved the giant guardian statues outside that come to life if someone escapes, like something out of “Jason and The Argonauts.” What else is in this realm apart from a weird old castle and the surrounding mysterious woods? Hopefully we’ll find out.