REVIEW: Feyland: The Dark Realm by Anthea Sharp
Dear Ms. Sharp,
There is a strong stigma surrounding self-published YA novels that suggests that they are all badly written and derivative. Even with authors like Amanda Hocking becoming successes in both print and digital publishing, there is an inherent idea that self-published YA is bad and a constant stream of riffs on the latest trends – namely Twilight.
Many books live up to this stigma, but I had the hope that Feyland would be a different story. The pitch you sent sounded interesting, though done before: a girl gets caught up in an immersive MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game)-type experience that suddenly becomes more than a game. I’ve read books with a similar premise, but never billed as a retelling of the ballad of Tam Lin along with it.
The long and short of it? I really enjoyed this book. Even if the cover made my eyes twitch profusely. Jennet Carter has been secretly playing a prototype game being developed by her father’s company. Made by a company that uses a fully-immersive type of gaming technology, Feyland is a computer game that promises to change the face of gaming. An avid gamer like Jennet ise nticed by using the new system – even though it’s directly against her father’s wishes. She can’t stay away from it. Feyland is unlike any game ever created. It shows an entire world that seems to have a life of its own.
The goal of most games is to get to the final level and to beat the boss waiting at the end. Feyland’s boss is the Dark Queen, and Jennet has worked insanely hard to get the chance to face her. She goes in with her all, and in strength they appear to be evenly matched. The Dark Queen then challenges Jennet with something unexpected: a challenge of wits. A riddle. Jennet has spells and spoils at her disposal, but she doesn’t have the answer that the Dark Queen seeks. As forfeit, Jennet has to give more than her pride.
The Dark Queen takes her soul.
Jennet thinks its only a game, but she soon realizes that the Queen’s threats and actions have direct consequence to the outside world. Something is indeed missing from her, and she cannot get it back on her own. She must go in with a champion – a gamer as skilled as she, if not more so – that can win back the part of her lost to the Queen. Jennet finds such a person at her new school, but Tam Linn is less than willing to jump at Jennet’s beck and call just because she’s rich and beautiful. Tam has lived life day-to-day, and he can’t believe that Jennet would do anything other than use him.
The friendship between is rocky, but Jennet’s life rides on Tam Linn’s gaming mastery. She introduces him to Feyland, soon discovering that there is more at stake than her soul. Not only do Jennet and Tam Linn have to save Jennet’s soul, but they have to find a way to prevent the Dark Queen and the other beings of Feyland from slipping into the non-virtual world. Tam Linn’s abilities may seem great, but the challenge of Feyland may just be too much.
Feyland: The Dark Realm plays to a lot of initial stock-character personalities in order to set-up the characterization, later going beyond the aspects of the stock character to deepen the character. Jennet is portrayed as a rich girl, and a rich girl in a YA novel is usually stuck-up or at the very least dramatic. I can enjoy those portrayals, but they can easily veer into stereotypical territory that comes across as inhuman and stupid. Jennet isn’t one of those rich girls. She’s surprisingly understanding and humble, and she doesn’t feel like she has the propensity that I often believe people of wealth to have.
Jennet’s kindness is a nice aspect on its own, but her love of gaming adds something unique to her character. People don’t expect her to love it. Frankly, I didn’t expect her to love it. People rarely acknowledge the female gamer in the gaming world, and Jennet is not the stereotypical female gamer, either. (The stereotypical gamer girl is often assumed to be a tomboy and socially awkward). This with her kindness makes for a surprisingly versatile and savvy character that attracts our attention – mostly because both aspects grow as the novel progresses. She steadily becomes more and more understanding of Tam Linn’s situation, showing that her kindness is an inner trait that she improves upon in the story, and she uses her gaming abilities to show the reader that she has the ability to defend herself and be a strong female. The set-up of the story does involve her needing to turn to a “knight in shining armor” type character, and the gaming expertise allows her to avoid becoming a female character who depends upon the male love interest for everything.
Tam Linn, the resident love interest and hero of Feyland, was also a surprisingly endearing character, though he’s not as uncommon as Jennet. Tam Linn isn’t an amazingly sexy character, and all of his angst and brooding comes from understandably awful living conditions. Tam Linn is just as aloof as Jennet is forward, and he provides a nice contrast to her. Tam Linn is in many ways a beta to Jennet, yet his gaming skills allow him to step up and protect her as a hero would. Tam Linn also has the added effect of being very sympathetic, as he shows a lot of tenderness once his outer shell chips away, and the scenes that show him with his family are very sweet.
The characters’ depth only goes so far, however. Feyland sets up each character with a strong character arc, but the arc is small. Plot takes precedence over character, and the focus only gets stronger as the novel goes on. The slower pace allowed the romance to develop at a respectable pace and avoid insta-love, yet the characters never get the time to show the reader exactly why the romance develops.
Tam Linn’s life is also filled with a lot of backstory centered around his home life. His mother rarely takes her medication and is often never around, and Tam Linn is thus left to parent his baby brother. The emotional depth and complexity behind this isn’t explored to its fullest extent, and a more introspective look would have made Tam Linn more complex as a character.
Feyland’s plot engrosses the reader easily. Many readers will be attracted to the story as a retelling of Tam Linn, which isn’t often retold to the YA audience. The story’s placement of that retelling in a near future with virtual-reality gaming makes the retelling seem fresh. The concept of a realistic virtual-reality game is one that seems more and more plausible with today’s advancing technology. The game itself feels well-constructed, and the action scenes pertaining to it are fabulous. It is quite easy to tell that the author has ample experience gaming and knows how to write about it in a way that is entertaining. That kind pacing makes Feyland a treat to read. It doesn’t garner the atrocious page count that some self-published YA books seem to have , and if anything the book could have been expanded in some portions. A sequel appears to be in the works, but the story functioned as its own entity, and that was excellent.
Plot-movement isn’t everything, however, and in some places the world building fell short. The real world in Feyland seems to be something in the near-future in our present world. Mentions of devices like grav-cars are made, but those devices are never really described or reasoned out beyond the mentioning. That kind of world building feels sloppy, and mentioning that type of thing without an explanation just leaves holes within the reader’s vision of the world. Other elements such as the structure of the actual game of Feyland and the slum area (known as the Exe) in the real world fell underdeveloped. There wasn’t a clear, concise idea as to how they functioned, worked, and related to the whole novel. They worked for the plot, but the connections between them weren’t finely tuned enough to feel complete.
As an avid gamer, there’s a lot to like in Feyland: The Dark Realm. The writing is solid and contains a minimal amount of errors, and the characters and story aren’t the usual romance-centric reading. If anything, the story goes by too quickly and misses some things that would have given it a layer of depth. Feyland: The Dark Realm is still a solid and fun addition to the YA world, and it could easily sit on the shelves with books published by traditional publishers. I’m definitely on board for more.
All the best,
I loved this story for the same reasons you did, John. Solid writing and a great, intriguing plot. I was not as familiar with the story of Tam Lin (where have I been?), so I caught up on that after reading Feyland. I enjoyed the story so much, I passed it on to my teen granddaughter, who also loved it. And I am anxiously awaiting the second story in this series.
I do know that the author went through a cover change and I’m wondering if the old cover is the one that had you “twitchy”. :) It had an elf-like character on it. I purchased a second copy with the new cover (which you show here) and I thought it well designed for the the “Dark Realm” theme.
Thanks for a fun re-visit to a story I found very entertaining.
Thanks for the great review. I love Feyland and am eagerly awaiting the next installment. I found the author’s writing many degrees above a lot of the YA out there now, even from traditional publishers, and am frankly surprised this story didn’t go through that channel.
It’s interesting that in the review you mention wanting the grav-cars and things of that nature to be spelled out more fully. Personally, I liked the fact that they weren’t – it felt more immersive, as if I was really a part of the world already and of course would know what a grav-car was, which allowed my imagination to fill in the details without interference from the author’s perspective on minor details. Sometimes, in my reading experience, I’ve found authors over-inform on things like that and it becomes intrusive rather than enlightening. I agree I would love more of Tam’s home life/inner struggle and am hoping to see it in Feyland 2, but I love him as a heroic character. He and Jennet are well-matched, and I felt their attraction and relationship played out as very genuine.