Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce: A-

floraFrom the back cover:
Flora Fyrdraaca knows taking shortcuts in Crackpot Hall can be risky. After all, when a House has eleven thousand decaying rooms that shift about at random, there’s no telling where a person might end up. But it’s not just household confusion that vexes Flora, what with Mamma always away being Commanding General of the Army, Poppy drowning his sorrows in drink, and Crackpot Hall too broken down to magically provide the clean towels and hot waffles that are a Fyrdraaca’s birthright.

Yet Flora is nothing if not a Girl of Spirit. So when she takes a forbidden shortcut and stumbles upon her family’s biggest secret—Valefor, the banished Butler—she and her best friend plunge happily into the grand adventure of restoring Valefor to his rightful (or so he says) position. If only Flora knew that meddling with a magical being can go terribly awry—and that soon she will have to find a way to restore herself before it is too late.

This is the story of Flora Fyrdraaca, referred to by some as Flora Segunda because she is the second Flora to have been born to her parents. She is on the verge of turning fourteen, an age at which Fyrdraaca family members go off to the Barracks to embark upon their careers as soldiers. Flora does not want to be a soldier, though; her ambition is to become a ranger like her heroine, Nini Mo, and use magic, stealth, and cunning while having exciting adventures. Flora’s mother, a high-ranking general, disapproves of magic, so Flora cannot express this preference, and the Ranger Corps has been disbanded anyway, so she contents herself with devouring every bit of information she can find on Nini Mo.

The Fyrdraaca family occupies an enormous house known as Crackpot Hall. At one time, there was a magical butler, but in his absence (banished by Flora’s mother), things have fallen into disrepair: rooms shift about at random, the elevator is unreliable, and most of the house is uninhabitable. One morning, while late for school and darting back inside to retrieve an overdue library book on Nini Mo, Flora decides to use the forbidden magical elevator and ends up in a new part of the house where she encounters the abrogated butler, Valefor. Tempted by the prospect of shifting the burden of her many chores upon him, she agrees to feed him a little of her Will (the power behind magic) to help get his strength back. This starts her on the path of various adventures, culminating in the useful lesson, “No one can take you from yourself unless you allow them to.”

There are many things to like about Flora Segunda. I particularly appreciate the lessons that Flora has learned from her adulation of Nini Mo—sprinkled liberally throughout the book as Flora calls them to mind during difficult situations—since they emphasize things like “being strong, fast, and clever is more important than looks.” Traditional gender roles are also dispensed with. It’s an absolute given that women can become soldiers—two powerful generals referenced within the story are female—and there’s a male character (awesomely described as “a glass-gazing font of frivolity”) who’s into fashion, eyeliner, and crinoline, which doesn’t seem to be a problem with anyone, either. The setting is unique, as it’s seemingly an alternate universe sort of 19th century California (dubbed Califa) that’s made peace with an invading Aztec-like culture, and the magical system is original and intriguingly complex.

Above all these things, however, is my deep and abiding love for Flora’s father, Hotspur. He had been a bright-eyed and magnificent soldier in his day, but when we meet him, he’s a broken, half-mad drunk with hollow eyes who spends most of his time holed up in a remote spot of Crackpot Hall, grieving over tragic losses sustained during the war. (I’ve just noticed that description sounds very like Sirius Black.) He sobers up a little bit along the way, offering unexpected help a couple of times, and there are some terrific moments with and revelations concerning him near the end of the book that had me teary and desperate to know more about his history and his future.

On the negative side, the plotting, while on the whole pretty tidy, feels a bit haphazard at times. Flora misjudges people time and again, leading to lots of running about hither and thither to try to solve problems created by her previous actions. I also don’t really feel I have a good grasp on Califa’s culture, though I grant that more detail probably would’ve been unnecessary and a detriment to the story’s momentum. Lastly, although I admire Flora’s amusingly snarky turns of phrase and the fact that I had to look up more unfamiliar words for this, a children’s book, than I have in quite a while, Wilce has this annoying habit of using the same word multiple times within the span of a few pages. With common words, this is no problem, but when the word is “scarpered” or “sangyn,” it’s much more obvious.

Like its sometimes foolish, sometimes courageous namesake, Flora Segunda isn’t perfect. However, its merits, originality, and knack for leaving me wanting more spur me to cry, “Bravo!”

Additional reviews of Flora Segunda can be found at Triple Take.

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