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REVIEW: Cast in Chaos by Michelle Sagara

Dear Ms. Sagara,

I’m a longtime fan of both your Michelle West epic fantasy novels published by DAW as well as the Elantra series put out by Luna. Your books never fail to remind me of why I love this genre. I also can’t believe we’re already up to six books about Kaylin Neya, a young woman with a mysterious destiny who’s just trying to make a living working as the second world fantasy equivalent of a beat cop.

Cast in Chaos by MIchelle SaguraTo bring new readers up to speed, the world of Elantra is one co-inhabited by six different races: humans, Leontines (lion-people), hawk-people, Tha’alani (a telepathic race with tentacles growing out of their heads), Barrani (the equivalent of faeries), and dragons who rule over them all. It’s an uneasy peace at times and the constant shifting of this balance has been explored in previous books. As a Hawk, Kaylin’s job is to uphold the law set down by the Dragon court, and the Elantra series chronicles her adventures doing just that. In addition, Kaylin is a human with unexplained magical ability of unclear origin. She can heal but she’s also capable of doing other things, the most pertinent to this book’s plot being that she can read magical sigils and glyphs, even if they are from a long-dead language.

Cast in Chaos opens with Kaylin and her partner, Severn, doing rounds on their latest assignment, Elani Street. Elani Street is, to put it tactfully, an area known for charlatans and swindlers. Fortune tellers, vendors of magical elixirs, you can find it all on Elani Steet. So imagine their surprise when a hair restoration potion actually works and gives a client a new head of hair and when a well-known fortune teller provides an accurate reading, which both upsets her client and inadvertantly endangers an ongoing investigation.

What Kaylin and Severn soon discover is that a magical disturbance has begun, centering on Elani Street and surrounding regions. Sometimes the results are benign, such as fake hair tonics delivering what they promise. Other times, babies are born with third eyes in the middle of their foreheads and the sky literally rains blood. The reason for this disruption? A magical portal between worlds is opening. What will come through it, however, is another matter entirely.

Cast in Chaos took a little while to get going for me as a reader. A good chunk of the beginning was devoted to laying the foundation for the plot and at times my attention wandered. It wasn’t boring, but I think I might have grown used to the instant gratification of simpler plots so I’m not as patient as I once was. In some respects, this lent to an impression of not much forward momentum. I discovered, however, that once I hit halfway, I couldn’t stop reading. The plot is one of those that slowly builds until it snowballs hard and fast, so I ultimately felt rewarded for sticking with it.

At last, the great question of why Elantra has so many disparate races has finally been answered! I know this has been a worldbuilding quirk that’s niggled me since the first book, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. But the revelation in Chaos made perfect sense as well as fit into the existing magic system, explaining why certain races have access to true names while others do not. To be honest, I usually don’t care for multiple world theories in fantasy simply because I tend to think of multiple realities as a science fiction trope but I think it worked very well here.

Kaylin also has more interactions with the dragons in this book. You can just see the impending meeting with the Dragon emperor looming on the horizon. I wonder how long it will take for her to meet him because after the events in this book, it’s become readily apparent they can’t keep putting it off forever. Kaylin is just too connected to many different races and has access to magic they can’t afford to let run loose unchecked. I’m personally looking forward to this meeting because I find the dragon race very fascinating. They’re the only original race we don’t really know much about at this point, though what glimpses we received in this book were interesting.

And finally, the other aspect readers will want to know — the question of Nightshade versus Severn. People may be interested to know that there are developments. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they constitute forward movement because that would require Kaylin to take some action, but I also see that the time is coming when Kaylin will have to do something eventually because even she can no longer ignore what’s there.

In the end, I was very satisfied with this read. It features a more self-contained plot than we’ve seen in recent installments but I also think the cast of characters has expanded such that newer readers who jump straight in might get lost easily. While the cast of characters is nowhere as large as that of the major players in the West books, it is still bigger than some people might be used to. The series has also become more epic in scope and straying further away from its beginning as second world police procedural fantasies. That isn’t a criticism but readers expecting the latter might not be entirely satisfied. Still, it was worthwhile and I look forward to seeing how the events that take place at the of Chaos impact Elantra’s future. B

My regards,
Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

18 Comments

  1. Merrian
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 07:05:50

    I love this series too. I also agree about the slow start but the drawing together of threads from the preceeding books and Kaylin being self aware makes it worth the read alone. Finally our little girl is growing up! And what interesting seeds for the next book, new peoples, the fiefs being drawn more closely into the mainstream let alone the egg waiting in the sunlight… which could be a big thing or a small thing. I have enjoyed the evolution of the characters, the world building as well as the depth that the number of books in the series brings to the story.

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  2. Brian
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 10:07:09

    Good review, I agree with it 100%.

    Can’t wait for the Cast in Moonlight novella (part of the Harvest Moon anthology) next month and Cast in Ruin in September of next year.

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  3. Scooper
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 10:27:55

    I love Nightshade, but Severn is a great guy too. This book did a good job showing qualities or sides to both men which would make choosing only one of them really hard. (However, I’m a die hard Nightshade girl.) :)

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  4. Shiloh Walker
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 11:24:15

    Hmmmm… I like that cover…

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  5. orannia
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 17:00:50

    My comment got lost :( Trying again…

    Great review Jia – thank you. I have this book on my TBR list and have a friend who is currently reading it. Said friend wants me to start reading ASAP because ATM she has no one to talk various plot points over with :)

    I too am intrigued regarding the eventual meeting of Kaylin and the Dragon Emperor. Kaylin is….Kaylin. She doesn’t prevaricate and finds it difficult not to say what she is thinking…I can so see the meeting going very pear-shaped, mainly because I don’t think the Emperor will want someone as powerful as Kaylin lose among his hoard, especially if he can’t control her… Although, come to think of it, I think Kaylin also sees the city as her hoard…

    @Scooper – I am so a Nightshade fan! *beams* Severn has more of a brother feel.

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  6. julieid
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 18:55:21

    Spoilers: I was disappointed in this book and am close to giving up on the series. It seems every book hints at a deeper relationship with Nightshade and a future meeting with Kaylin and the Dragon Emperor and fails to deliver. And while some of the characters in the book have the ability to wait forever, I do not. I have a personal book review rating system and this classified as a “wall hitter” when I reached the end and realized the book was leaving unresolved these issues. I stopped reading Janet E for the same reason. Enough.

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  7. SaraC
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 19:04:49

    I didn’t read the review yet because I don’t want to spoil myself before I read it, but i just wanted to pipe in and say how much I love these books.

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  8. arani
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 19:47:11

    I’ve just started book five but I don’t mind reading reviews (spoilers) at all. I’m looking forward to Kaylin meeting the Emperor, I’m guessing it would go well. As for Severn vs Nightshade, I agree Orannia – Severn is more like an older brother, I don’t feel there’s any chemistry between them.
    I’m wondering how long is the timeline between Book 1 and Book 6. If it’s only been a few weeks, then it would still be possible for the romance part of the book to be dragged on.

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  9. Miki S
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 19:47:17

    I also enjoyed this book (but I’m in the “Severn” camp – you Nightshade folks are crazy!)

    But I can also understand julieid’s comment (#6). I don’t know if it’s because I am a romance reader first, but I don’t want this series to be episodic that never really goes anywhere (like Evanovich).

    Even if it means a much loved series has to end, I want there to be a point to this series – a resolution to all that’s gone on.

    And, of course, I want her to finally forgive Severn and stay far, far away from Nightshade! ;-)

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  10. Jia
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 19:55:21

    @Miki S: Thank goodness you commented! I was beginning to think I was the only one who liked Severn for Kaylin, lol.

    I do think there is a split here in terms of the Elantra series being a fantasy series versus being a romance series. I’d actually argue it leans more towards the fantasy side with a subtle romance subplot. I don’t know if anyone else here has read Sagara’s works under the West name but based on those books, I honestly wouldn’t expect the romantic aspect to be resolved until nearly the end of the series as a whole though.

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  11. Tae
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 21:22:30

    hrm, I didn’t know about this author and this looks right up my alley. I am definitely checking her out.

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  12. Merrian
    Sep 17, 2010 @ 09:07:22

    I always think the romance elements of the story (Severn vs Nightshade) are a minor thing. The books are about Kaylin’s growth and there has to be an eventual all out war with the outcaste, the Emperor will fly, so there is an endpoint to the series but we are not there yet. I too have given up on Stephany Plum not because the books are episodic but because they are the same ones over and over there is no character growth. Yet that has been such an interesting feature of Elantra books. As the past has come to light and forgiveness and redemption occurred and Kaylin has matured the books have garnered more depth.

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  13. Estara
    Sep 17, 2010 @ 16:17:28

    The Barrani are Elves, Elves, I say!

    This was an A for me and the strongest entry in the series so far. Just like you I’ve read her other books, so I never expected this to stick with a one-off-plot police procedural per book. (I don’t think a new Kate Daniels would be a good place to start that series either, or a new Mercy Thompson, by the way).

    But since the series doesn’t have multiple point-of-view characters, it’s easier to follow than her other books.

    I totally agree on being happy with more of the internal background being revealed and that combined with the most powerful threat so far, and I loved that Severn was finally forced to vocally address certain subjects, because he’s always there but rarely says anything (I’m Team Severn, by the way, Nightshade is out for himself and his fief – notice I don’t say that Team Severn is best for Kaylin, I’m not sure if he isn’t totally emotionally dependent on her and that would be too much to bear in a real relationship).

    The twist at the end – for the magic in the world and for its population – has opened many more possibilities and I’m quite happy to follow, even if Kaylin should not find love in the next 20 books ^^. In real time in her world not that much time has passed, after all.

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  14. Estara
    Sep 17, 2010 @ 16:21:24

    Also, I want to throw in my vote as reading this more of a fantasy series – an urban fantasy series even, where you don’t necessarily have a romance.

    I read both romance and sf&f, so as long as I like the voice and ideas of an author I don’t mind where they fall on the spectrum.

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  15. orannia
    Sep 19, 2010 @ 18:11:11

    WRT Nightshade – he is so out for the himself (the fief), but…I think he has many layers (and he’s a very grey character, which I love).

    @Jia – I agree. The Elantra series has more of a fantasy feel with a romantic subplot. And ditto that for the books Michelle writes as Michelle West. I haven’t read the Sun Sword series in a while (but just recommended it to a friend who is still raving about it :) but I’m reading the sequel (if I can call it that) series about Jewel. Have City of Night giving me dirty looks ATM for leaving it on the TBR list to long!

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  16. Jia
    Sep 19, 2010 @ 18:20:03

    @orannia: Ha! I know how that feels. City of Night’s been sitting in my TBR pile since forever, sending out guilt rays.

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  17. Angel
    Oct 03, 2010 @ 13:35:46

    I love, love, love this series. I thought this last book would bring Nightshade more into the picture. Though there was one brief encounter, I was sadly left wanting. The book seemed to go on and on about the probable “catastrophe” in the making, and though I could not bring myself to stop reading as Ms. Sagara is an awesome writer, I felt the void of the romance bit of this series. I did appreciate the declaration of Severn’s reasons for loving her- though not saying the type of love he has for her. I have been reading faithfully hoping to have Kaylin find out that she has desires more than just helping the foundlings, and saving/delivering babies, it just seems to never come. PLEASE let Nightshade be a PROMINENT part of this next book!!!

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  18. REVIEW: Cast in Ruin by Michelle Sagara - Dear Author
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 19:40:58

    [...] in Ruin continues the fallout from the previous novel, Cast in Chaos, in which a magical storm introduced a new race of people to Elantra. Because this new race is one [...]

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