Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce: A-

From 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!”


Flora Segunda (Ysbeau Wilce)

The Plot
Flora Fyrdraaca is about to turn fourteen, about to be sent to the army’s training camp, and about to find herself stuck in a profession she doesn’t want. What she does want is to become a Ranger like her hero, Nini Mo, but she has no real idea how she ought to go […]

The Plot
Flora Fyrdraaca is about to turn fourteen, about to be sent to the army’s training camp, and about to find herself stuck in a profession she doesn’t want. What she does want is to become a Ranger like her hero, Nini Mo, but she has no real idea how she ought to go about fulfilling this ambition. While attempting to procrastinate dealing with this increasingly pressing problem, she finds herself embroiled in one accidental near disaster after another.

My Thoughts
After I read this book, I went looking online to see what I could find out about the series — more background, future books and so forth. I soon found the author’s blog in which she noted her strong preference for reviews without spoilers. So that is what I shall provide here, more or less.

Stuff I Liked
The first thing that strikes one about the book is the writing style. I’ve been trying to come up with a way of describing it that would make sense to anyone but myself, but I’m not sure my impressions are easily conveyed. The style is what I would describe as ‘cute’, young fannish female bloggerese. (And let me clarify that these are college or post-college young fannish females, as contrasted with middle aged fannish females and female children. It was not chatspeak.) Since that is a writing style which I like and to which I occasionally aspire, I liked it very much. (Except when I didn’t, see below.)

Also very positive was the author’s excellent job at creating a character who actually thinks, behaves and reacts in a fashion entirely appropriate for her age. This is not as easy or as obvious as it sounds, as it’s remarkable the number of amateur and even professional authors who find themselves in desperate trouble as soon as they write a character younger than seventeen or eighteen.

The setting was also very intriguing to me. The city in which Flora resides seems as if it may be loosely based on San Francisco, with the wider world outside consisting of the rest of California and Mexico at the very least. As someone who hasn’t lived any further west than Minneapolis and has spent probably a grand total of about 3 weeks on the west coast, my innate knowledge of the history of the area is sorely lacking, so some of what has been pulled in for the world building may be lost on me. I can tell you why the Pilgrims at Plymouth did not get on with the Puritans in Boston but I could not tell you what the Spanish were doing in Mexico and California and when they actually left and what lasting influence they had on current Hispanic and Mexican culture. Which is my roundabout way of saying that quite a lot of stuff in Flora’s world (like the catorcena) seemed like it might be of Hispanic or Mexican origin but I am not qualified to make definitive statements on the matter. But I liked it anyway because these are not influences I often see in fantasy novels.

Stuff I Didn’t Like
As noted before, the first thing that strikes one about the book is the writing style. And though I liked it overall and became very used to it over the course of the whole story, there was a point toward the beginning where I was starting to find it overbearingly cutesy. While I can understand the reasoning behind using similar-sounding but not quite the same words to help with your world building, “sandwie” crossed the line. I didn’t realize there was a line until it was crossed, but as soon as I saw that I knew we’d gone beyond it.

I also felt very much the lack of a pronunciation guide to the names. Almost all of them were vowel soup with random squiggly accent marks to boot and I would have appreciated some guidance there. Left to my own devices I will often grow used to thinking of it being pronounced in an incorrect fashion and thus be jarred later to hear it another way.

While the book had a conclusion, of sorts, there were a lot of questions which were either not answered or even raised during the course of it. Some of them are perhaps not the sort of questions Flora would have asked, but as a reader, I certainly did.

1. Where did Flora come from? Her dad did not seem to be in any particular position to be performing his husbandly duties and one can only assume he was worse years ago.
2. What happened to the Rangers?
3. What happened to Nini Mo?
4. What happened to the first Flora?
5. What happened to Poppy? Perhaps this is meant to have been answered but I cannot help but feel the explanation was inadequate.

I assume (and now know) that some of these questions will be answered elsewhere, and I can be satisfied with that. But I didn’t go into the read with the expectation or realization that this was a series effort, so to have so much left in the air at the end was a little jarring.

In Short
As I started the book, I wasn’t sure how the language and the setting would pan out. Would they grow to grate on me, or would I grow to like them? It turned out to be the latter, as I became absorbed in the story and came to like Flora and even Udo, who is not the sort of character I usually like. (It goes without saying that I also liked Hotspur, because he is exactly the sort of character I usually like.) This is again a fantasy-adventure book with a strong female protaganist which I haven’t seen getting enough publicity. It already has one sequel (which I began reading directly, then stopped because I realized it was going to answer some of the questions I had left after reading the first Flora, and I should write this review before I got the answers) and it seems more are probably on the way. More people should read it. Make sure your libraries are purchasing it.


J’s Take on Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce

The sequel to this book just made the Tiptree honor list, as this book did the year before, so it’s a good time to be reading it.
There’s a lot to like in this book. The female characters are good, and take roles you don’t normally expect to see. They’re in the military, just like the […]

The sequel to this book just made the Tiptree honor list, as this book did the year before, so it’s a good time to be reading it.

There’s a lot to like in this book. The female characters are good, and take roles you don’t normally expect to see. They’re in the military, just like the men and boys are, and one of them is even referred to as, I believe, ‘The Butcher’… or well, it was something bloody and unpleasant. Also, two thumbs up for them being called ‘sir’. I always liked that in Star Trek and was quite mad at Voyager and Janeway for insisting otherwise.

The setting is California.. at first I thought it was a future California and the references to magic was just technology that had been half-forgotten. But then I wasn’t so sure. It may be an alternate, fantastical California. There are Houses, which are not only the families that live in them, but the houses themselves, which have an AI (or a sentient magical demonal being thing) that is also the house and part of the family. Some alien invaders, or maybe they’re not alien, but they’re bird-like creatures, have come in. And there was a war, but they’re sort of in a truce at the moment.

Flora Segunda is the second Flora born into the family, the first one having died. Her father’s got PTSD and is generally loopy. Her mother is a General and is off doing General stuff most of the time. Leaving Flora to take care of the big house by herself. Her sister’s also off in the military. She’s almost 14 and preparing for her Catorcena party where she’ll be officially an adult and can go join the military herself. But she doesn’t want to. She wants to be a ranger. Which are cooler, sort of like spies, and they can use magic, and they’re more independent, I gather.

What’s the plot though? That’s the hard part. I had trouble following the plot. Flora seems to go off randomly in several directions, so that I can’t quite tell what her goal is half the time. She finds the denizen for her house, which has been locked up by her mother. And instead of asking her mother why, she just goes along with the plan of helping him out. Which involves giving him some of her Will. She doesn’t even seem to think twice about that.

So part of the time, she’s trying to help him get stronger and free himself from her mother’s banishment and whatnot. But then part of the time she’s gone off to try to save this Dainty Pirate guy that her mother has captured and sentenced to death. And all her attempts to do that fail spectacularly. But not for any particular reason arising from her actions or the actions of an antagonist. It’s just sort of.. fate, or coincidence. Or at least certainly seems to be. A maleficial deus ex machina if you will.

And in the middle of the muddle that the plot turns into, at least in my head, Flora’s being far too trusting of people. Especially when they’re not even people. She and her sidekick, whose name has already escaped me, meet this random mermaid guy and swallow his story whole without questioning it in the least. Or even questioning him in the least.

Now, yea, okay, they’re only 13, and maybe their lives and thoughts are a muddle. But it’s not enjoyable to try to follow. And I frequently wanted to shake her.

Interesting world and interesting society. And, like I said, some good things in here. I want to know more about these creatures and halfbreeds they’re at war with. I wonder if there’s more in the short stories that preceded this book. Or if there’s more in the sequel. So I’ll read more. But I don’t know that I’d recommend it to other people. Read it if it interests you, but if you’re looking for books to read, I have others I can suggest.