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REVIEW: Cast in Peril by Michelle Sagara

Dear Ms. Sagara,

Longtime readers of DA know that I’m a dedicated fan of yours. If you publish a novel, it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll read it. I’ve followed your Elantra novels about Kaylin Neva since the very beginning. I can’t believe we’re already up to book 8! Time flies. Well, for us, anyway. The timeline is still pretty decompressed within the books themselves.

castinperilCast in Peril continues the story of Kaylin Neva, our reluctant heroine gifted with magical powers no one completely understands and whose body is marked with written tattoos most people have long since forgotten how to decipher. The Elantra series revolves around the cases she takes on in her role as a law enforcement official/investigator while also tackling the ramifications of having those very same magical abilities. For the past several novels, Kaylin has been navigate the complicated politics that comes with living in a world filled with different races, all of whom live under the auspices of a dragon emperor.

Since the events of the previous novel, Kaylin has been adjusting. She has a new roommate, the female dragon Bellusdeo. She’s been taking care of a mysterious egg. Things could be better but they’re not all bad. Then someone blows up her apartment in an assassination attempt upon Bellusdeo’s life.

You’d think this distinct possibility would have occurred to someone. Bellusdeo is the only female dragon in the world. Basically, the future of the race depends on her. If she dies, the number of dragons in the world remains as it is. The fact that she was allowed to room with Kaylin is something that doesn’t sit well with me because it just doesn’t make sense. Unless, of course, you view it through the lens that Bellusdeo is a special chosen one in the same way that Kaylin is a special chosen one, and as such, she gets to do whatever she wants. As you can guess, I’m not keen on Bellusdeo’s character, mostly because she’s all of the traits I dislike in Kaylin amplified.

At any rate, Kaylin and Bellusdeo escape the attack unscathed but just barely. This is mostly due to the intervention of the mysterious egg, which chooses that moment to hatch. What comes out of the shell? Good question. It looks like a small glass dragon. That’s not what it is at all, of course, and soon Kaylin finds herself in possession of a magical familiar many people would destroy worlds to obtain.

While this is all going on, Kaylin has also been looking into a series of disappearances in the fiefs. The investigation leads to some unfortunate revelations, which tie into a side assignment Kaylin must take on. You see, in exchange for some information needed for an ongoing investigation, Kaylin must travel with the Barrani to West March. Given that the Barrani are this world’s equivalent of the Fae, you can guess how well this is going to go.

One thing I’ve always liked about the Elantra series is that the books generally have self-contained story arcs. True, certain plotlines and character arcs carry from one book to the next. Occasionally one book will explore the fallout of events that happen in the previous one. I do think we’ve long passed the point where new readers can jump into the series but overall, the books never individually feel incomplete.

That changes with Cast in Peril. Apparently, this novel and the one to follow, Cast in Sorrow, were meant to be one novel but had to be split in half due to length. Having read the novels you write under the Michelle West, I’m used to this. Other readers, however, might not be.

But that’s not why I have mixed feelings about it. While I do believe the split was necessary, it had the effect of making this book feel incomplete. Yes, in a sense, that’s certainly true considering that it’s really the first part of a novel, but it makes for a rather unsatisfying reading experience. I personally found the first half of Cast in Peril to be slow. Yes, things happened. Yes, there was a huge explosion that had major repercussions. But despite all that, I felt like it was a lot of flash and show for not a whole lot of forward movement.

This goes to the heart of my main complaint with the Elantra books as of late. It began bothering me in the previous novel, Cast in Ruin, and it only got stronger with this installment. We are eight books into the series but not nearly as much time has passed within the series’s timeline. If I estimate correctly, I think it’s less than a year. And while I don’t mind decompressed timelines, I do think there’s such a thing as taking it too far. It makes the overall narrative seem like it’s plodding forward. I don’t think a narrative should ever plod. It’s also begun to stretch believability that all these monumental, world-changing events have been happening within such a short time span.

With Cast in Peril, I was promised a trip to West March. It’s the reason why Kaylin had to take a leave of absence from the Hawks. It’s the reason why Teela has to accompany her. It’s a Big Deal that the Consort is coming along. And even though we eventually get an interesting journey there, it’s still a letdown that we never arrive. In fact, it’s frustrating. It’s slow burn build up to something that never happens because the books end. I expect this sort of pacing in a big fat epic fantasy doorstopper. I did not expect it here.

As for the eternal Severn versus Nightshade debate, readers on both sides of the divide will be pleased to know that Kaylin has significant interactions with both in this novel. I’m still on Team Severn all the way. My mind has not changed and I doubt it was ever will. The power dynamic between Kaylin and Nightshade makes me uncomfortable in the context of a romantic relationship and considering some of the revelations that happen in this novel, I don’t think I’d ever be okay with the idea of them being a romantic couple. In some ways, I think there was more progress on the Kaylin and Severn front with them explicitly addressing some things between them but I don’t think all hope is lost for those on Team Nightshade. (Hence, why I’m still so uneasy about this aspect of the novels.)

There are some interesting displays of magic in this book. I enjoyed those scenes quite a bit but I can see how those readers from not as strong a fantasy background might find them a bit impenetrable and abstract. Despite that, however, I was most interested in the familiar and curious to see what role it’ll play in future books. I realize it’s yet another sign of Kaylin being the special chosen one but people who find that trope irritating probably wouldn’t be reading this series in the first place.

Overall, I don’t regret reading this novel but I’m feeling increasingly disenchanted with the series. For all the events that keep happening, it just doesn’t feel like there’s been any forward movement at all. Yes, I realize not much time has passed “in-world” but considering how catastrophic some of the events of past novels were, there should be more advancement, particularly on a characterization level. I’m still hanging on for Cast in Sorrow, but I’m not eagerly anticipating it either. I fear series fatigue has overcome me at last. C

My regards,
Jia

Previous books in this series: Cast in Shadow, Cast in Courtlight, Cast in Secret, Cast in Fury (review), Cast in Silence (review), Cast in Chaos (review), Cast in Ruin (review)

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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]!

14 Comments

  1. Merrian
    Oct 15, 2012 @ 08:23:12

    I had just the same reaction to this book as you, Jia. The ending to this book is not natural and left me feeling like I had read all that for nothing. It also seems like Kaylin has turned into a Mary Sue. The compressed timeline has always been a problem – 8 books = 8 years of my time and Kaylin has inched along in maturity and events while to this point self contained in each book haven’t added up to more than the outcaste waits and the Emperor is an old meany. There is also a lot of telling and not showing in the writing and I am tired of all the words. It is a pity because there is real imagination in the invention of Elantra and its peoples.

  2. Jia
    Oct 15, 2012 @ 09:02:17

    @Merrian: It’s interesting because I consider Kaylin and Jewel (from the Michelle West books) to be of the same character archetype: the special chosen one. But Jewel, who isn’t my favorite character from this books either, doesn’t bother me nearly as much as Kaylin is right now. You are right that she’s becoming a bit too precious for words — everyone’s interested in her. She’s precious to the catpeople. The Dragons are interested in her so she’s prepping to meet the emperor… eventually. Various Barrani are interested in her, not just Nightshade. She’s friends with a talking tower. The only female Dragon in existence wanted to become her roommate even though really, it makes more sense to live in the palace. And now she has a familiar? It’s just getting to be a little too much.

  3. Estara
    Oct 15, 2012 @ 10:27:14

    This series is constantly one of my most comfort rereads and this book played into that just fine. I’ve adopted Jo Walton’s classification of certain series consisting of “chunk” novels and when the author pulls that off (we join the main character at some point in their life and live alongside them for as long as the author has ideas or the publisher buys books – for example, C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner books or LMB’s Vorkosiverse – which has the advantage of always exploring a certain aspect or the Liaden Universe, which has more than one main character) I’m just happy that I can share as much time with the focus of that character inside that world. It actually works better for me if I have a clear protagonist, usually.

    I wonder if the Wheel of Time is similar (I stopped after book 6) or the Martin series? They’re too dark-grim for my taste.

    So I reread the other books before the new one and then it really is like exploring her world (maybe like a TV series with regular episodes and a slowly developing plot where enough is left over for another season?). So this was a five-star read for me http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/329045977 – review has SPOILERS!

  4. Brian
    Oct 15, 2012 @ 12:15:42

    This one was a C+ for me.

    If a book is going to get split like this I really hate having to wait a year for the second half, it should come out a month or two later instead. :-)

    I have found that re-reading the earlier books in preparation for the newest helps me not be as impatient with the lack of progress in this series, but it would be nice if we had a lot more progress by now. I no longer anticipate the next book in this series as much as I used to.

    For some reason the whole eye color thing really got to me this time too.

  5. Readsalot81
    Oct 15, 2012 @ 12:28:43

    @Jia : You’ve articulated very well some of the issues that I’ve had within this book. Although, on the whole, I enjoyed it a bit more than you did. When I saw that she was splitting this due to length, my reaction to that bit of news was severe disappointment. I *hated* when GRRM did this to a Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. (I should note I’m still working my way through ADWD). With Bellusdeo , since the character has only been in the tail end of the last novel and the beginning of this one, I’m a little more inclined to give her a bit more leeway in terms of character development, though I’m not in total disagreement with your assessment.

    One thing I really love about her writing though is that no matter which cast of characters is on stage (Barrani, Dragons, Leontines, Tha’alani ) at the given time, I’m happy with all of them. I don’t have a particular preference for one or the other and each race has well developed characters that I’m always pleased to learn more about.

    I’m solely on Team Severn as I have a hard time viewing Lord Nightshade as being remotely capable of helping Kaylin without it having some benefit to himself. Kaylin, within the past books, articulates my problem with Nightshade. He wants her, yes, but he’d like the power of her abilities just as much. Severn has demonstrated time and time again his feelings for Kaylin through his actions towards her.

    At 8 books in, I’ll admit that I read them mostly for the variety of characters and the world of Elantra rather than the MC herself.

  6. Jia
    Oct 15, 2012 @ 13:17:19

    I think we’re all in agreement that the worldbuilding is strong (maybe the strongest aspect?) and that the different races are interesting. I definitely enjoy the various interactions and politics. I just wish the overall narrative (plotline? arc?) had more forward movement. For all that I roll my eyes at A Song of Ice and Fire (I felt like A Dance with Dragons was a beatdown, personally), stuff happens and has immediately impact. The issue with that series is that it’s sprawling on epic levels. The Elantra novels aren’t really on that same level of epic feel.

    I’d also argue that while A Song of Ice and Fire is absolutely grimdark, Wheel of Time is definitely not. Not in the way I think of the word. Unless you think Michelle West’s novels are grimdark because I’d consider those novels and Wheel of Time to be on the same level of grittiness and darkness. I mean, Brandon Sanderson’s writing style is not at all grimdark and if Robert Jordan’s original style had been, then he would not have been chosen to finish Wheel of Time.

  7. orannia
    Oct 15, 2012 @ 18:16:35

    Thank you Jia! I too have become a little disenchanted with the series and for me it is down to the lack of forward movement (I really struggled with Cast in Ruin) and Kaylin being a special chosen one. I’m actually not a fan of the special chosen one trope (at all), so I’m reading the series in spite of that. But…it’s becoming very pronounced and I’m actually wondering how long I will continue with the series.

    As for the eternal Severn versus Nightshade debate, readers on both sides of the divide will be pleased to know that Kaylin has significant interactions with both in this novel.

    Finally :) I am totally Team Nightshade, but I invariably chose the losing character in any triangle, so likely Severn will win out :)

  8. Jen
    Oct 15, 2012 @ 22:27:48

    Hey, orannia, fellow Team Nightshade member here! I find Severn boring. It seems like Sagara has made him perfectly supportive, perfectly loving–and perfectly dull. At least Nightshade is interesting. He challenges her; she challenges him. The power differential doesn’t bother me because it is rapidly changing in her favor–and Nightshade is actively encouraging her to become more powerful.

    I take what Kaylin thinks and says about him with a grain of salt. She has admitted his mind is closed to her. I pay attention to what the author shows us, which is that he has passionate feelings for her. The biggest barrier I see between them is that he’s not human, and his morality is not human morality. Whether they can overcome that remains to be seen, but at least their relationship is exciting and entertaining.

    I also worry about Kaylin becoming too much “the chosen one”. Cute as the familiar is, I almost wished the egg didn’t hatch because he’s fixated on her like so many of the other characters. It helps that the Consort and Bellusdeo are also unique, and they are playing bigger roles in the story. They help to balance out Kaylin’s specialness.

    Like Jia, I love the complex world Sagara has created. Some parts interest me more than others. The Hallionnes weren’t as interesting as I hoped they would be. Tara is a more intriguing sentient building. Evanton and his garden remain favorites of mine; I hope they play a bigger role in future novels. Another disappointment was that the story had to be split between two books. Right now we have just enough information to make the wait for the next book unbearably long.

  9. Estara
    Oct 16, 2012 @ 08:39:00

    @Jia: Thanks for your impressions of those two series in comparison. As I said I stalled on Wheel of Time after book 6 and I read the first Martin book and won’t go back to either of them.

  10. Merrian
    Oct 16, 2012 @ 19:30:28

    @Estara:

    I stalled on Wheel of Time around the same point as you – a key reason being what read like the author’s underlying dislike of women. It always felt to me that he tainted their characters in some way.

  11. Estara
    Oct 17, 2012 @ 14:00:40

    @Merrian: Agreed. Also, I like the way that MSW handles the Chosen One trope much better than Jordan’s version of it, heh. Probably because males can be partners, authority figures and antagonists in her books, but aren’t princes-in-distress or a bunch of backstabbers incompetent to handle their power while putting down the opposite sex.

  12. Anne
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 09:21:17

    I keep wondering why the Aerian race hasn’t been made a more central or explored race. They certainly interest me and I would love to learn about them. This , of course, isn’t pertaining to this specific book, but I have only this week read the first 6 books of the series for the first time, and reading the reviews from ‘Cast in Chaos’ to this book, don’t exactly leave me racing to plunk down more money on this series, if essentially in the 3 books I’ve not yet read, I haven’t actually “Missed” anything of import.

  13. Estara
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 12:09:59

    @Anne: I believe she’s still planning to do an Aerian book – and she’s hasn’t done a real Dragon Court book, either, since Kaylin has yet to meet the emperor. I know that there are two more book contracts after this one already agreed on. If the series continues to sell we may get more (after all the Foreigner books are already at book 13 as well).

  14. REVIEW: Cast in Sorrow by Michelle Sagara
    Aug 28, 2013 @ 12:01:07

    […] in Sorrow picks up immediately after the end of Cast in Peril. This should be no surprise because this story was originally one novel split into two. But because […]

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