**** The Monster of Selkirk, #1 and #2, by C.E. Clayton

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Monsters come in many forms, and not everyone knows a monster when they see one. After three hundred years of monstrous, feral elves plaguing the island nation of Selkirk, everyone believes they know what a monster is. Humans have learned to live with their savage neighbors, enacting a Clearing every four years to push the elves back from their borders. The system has worked for centuries, until after one such purge, a babe was found in the forest.

As Tallis grows, she discovers she isn’t like everyone else. There is something a little different that makes people leery in her presence, and she only ever makes a handful of friends.

But when the elves gather their forces and emerge from the forests literally hissing Tallis’s name like a battle mantra, making friends is the least of her troubles. Tallis and her companions find themselves on an unwilling journey to not only clear her name, but to stop the elves from ravaging her homeland.

There is something intangible, and difficult to describe that makes a book good. Some quality to the writing that hooks you and keep you reading, that makes you fall deep into the story. This book has it. While the first few pages were a little hard to get into, for we are plunged right away deep into the story with no introduction and it’s a little jarring to start a book with a fight scene, the writing gripped me right away and within minutes I was deeply engrossed in this book. I ended up reading the entire first novel while I was on one day-long train ride, and then the entire sequel on the train back.

The Duality of Nature is the author’s first novel, and it shows in certain places. The writing could have been more polished, and I found that the author sometime uses too many adjectives, or falls too deeply into introspection, slowing down the narrative somewhat, especially in the second book. But despite these first-time-author flaws, the story is engaging and the worldbuilding intriguing.

The story takes place on an island that has been isolated from it’s neighbours for hundreds of years. The island is inhabited by humans and elves, who used to be at war… until the elves turned feral for mysterious reasons. Right away this is an interesting twist on normal fantasy tropes. These elves are behaving like what you would expect orcs to in a more traditional fantasy book, with some of their behaviors taken from the real world’s fair folk lore. They are wild, they steal babies, and they attack anyone who dares enter their forests.

The main character, Tallis, was found as a baby in the forest… like a changeling. And exactly like one, she turns out to be beautiful and graceful in battle and odd in a way that the other people in her town cannot explain, and aren’t entirely comfortable with. Which was fascinating to explore, honestly, because Tallis doesn’t have one mean bone in her body and just wants what’s best for her friends and even her father, that doesn’t like her very much.

The world that Tallis lives in is brutal, and the transition from her life in her poor town to when she and her friends have to venture into the forest on a quest is quite interesting. Their world suddenly shrinks from a tapestry of various influences to just four people, who have to figure out how to get along and save the world.

There is that magical scene which I love in any YA book, which is when the heroine finally gathers her rag tag group of misfits and walks into the forest towards things unknown, and this first book filled up all my expectations. I loves seeing Tallis make friends with people, knowing that she would inevitably whisk when away into a magical quest into the mysterious forest. (I grew up near a mysterious forest myself, and never quite stopped wanting to just grab a bag and vanish between the trees one evening.)

I did feel slightly uncomfortable with the culture and backstory of Tallis’s friend Rosslyn, who is a black, loud, bisexual, pickpocket who comes from a romani-ish culture where people do what they want, even if it’s theft, because it’s just « following their sipsi spirit » (Sipsi being here the fantasy world equivalent of the g-slur, I’m certain). Some of these sipsi clans are even in league with the evil feral elves who steal babies. Despite Rosslyn being a protagonist, all of this had very unfortunate implications that I don’t feel qualified to talk about but that I did feel the need to point out. All of the questionable moral decisions in the book are done by Rosslyn as well. So, huh, yeah. While it is obvious that none of these unfortunate implications were on purpose, I do believe that the author has some way to go towards being more sensitive in her writing of diverse characters.

Between the two books, The Duality of Nature and The Heart of the Forest, I found the first one to be the best, although both books were great. I found the first book to have a faster pace, and more content simply because I felt like more things happened to the characters. In the second book, Tallis and her friends are 100% focused on their quest, and there are very few side plots after the beginning of the book, and so it felt like everything was happening faster, while at the same time also feeling like it was taking forever simply for the amount of time that we spend inside of Tallis’s head for long bouts of introspection. Simply put, it felt like the storyline was simpler but the second book suffered a little from telling more than showing.

All in all, I would rec that book to my friends because it is a fresh take on fantasy tropes like elves and changelings, and also because I love seeing a group of teens walk into a mysterious forest for a world-saving quest. Like, that’s my jam.

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