BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: A fine urban fantasy, first in a duology, that uses a classic story from Scottish Myth as a template and foundation.
PROS: Strongly drawn, atypical protagonist; interesting and engaging web of secondary characters; good worldbuilding.
CONS: Protagonist’s relationship with her lost love could have been drawn more strongly; no grounding of place for protagonist.
BOTTOM LINE: A very good urban fantasy very representative of the author’s skills and work.
“He has been taken. And you are his only chance.”
That is not exactly the kind of message you want to start your day. Jan, however, has it even worse than that. Not only is Tyler, her boyfriend of several months, been captured by the ultraterrestrial forces of Faerie, but said forces are well aware that Jan is a threat to be neutralized. Jan still has allies, though: local supernatural creatures who think the forces of Faerie are competition. Not that they are entirely trustworthy, either, with their nasty tendencies…but even such beings can’t deal with the Faerie, or even figure out how they are beguiling humans, without help. And since it is her boyfriend who has been most recently taken, that means Jan. An asthmatic computer-geeky heroine is not your typical protagonist, but if Jan doesn’t rise to the challenge, it will be more than Tyler’s life and well being on the line.
The center of Heart of Briar, the first in The Portals duology from Laura Anne Gilman, is its main character and the ones around her. Jan is hardly your typical fantasy protagonist. She does not have a tramp stamp. She does not carry a sword or wield magic. Jan is not Alice, from Resident Evil, with a gun. Instead, she’s an asthmatic geek-girl with computer skills and an indomitable will. She makes a winning protagonist whose plight and story are wonderfully told. The author doesn’t soft-pedal her disadvantages and when Jan plays to her strengths, she plays to win, as do the crew of supernaturals that she allies with: from AJ, their werewolf leader, to the complicated kelpie, Martin…they are all well-drawn and have a multi-sided, interesting set of relationships. We also get hints, in scenes from Tyler’s point of view, that Elfland is hardly a monolithic entity of alien, unknowable Fae.
Par for the course, the author’s writing shows her ability to write evocative, striking prose, whether it’s describing the otherworldliness of Faerie, or Jan’s often humorous attempts to bring the supernaturals into the computer age, the writing is clear and bright. The author’s skills at freelance editing are, once again, reflected in her own work.
The story of Heart of Briar, is, at its center, the Scottish story of Tam Lin. In that story, Janet, the heroine, discovers that her lover is a captive of the Queen of Fairies. It’s up to her, with the strength of her love and her will to hold onto him, and by so doing, win him back from his unearthly enchantress. Given the endless variations of this story that have already been told, Gilman brings a refreshing 21st century sensibility to the tale, yet keeps some key thematic elements.
Best of all, Soul of Fire, the other half of the duology, comes out this fall. I’m looking forward to seeing how Gilman rounds out this story. After reading Heart of Briar, you might very well be in that camp as well. I also think that for those who do not have a taste for epic fantasy (i.e. The Vineart War trilogy), Heart of Briar is a very good example of Gilman playing to and executing her strengths, if you are inclined to try her work.