Prisoners of the Keep by Susan Bianculli (YA Fantasy Novel, 2015)
This capable fantasy novel is the first in a series of ebooks about a teenaged girl from our world who is accidentally trapped in a parallel world of fairy tale adventure. At 15, Lise Baxter is an apparently ordinary New York City kid. She’s always loved reading fantasy stories. While relaxing in Central Park after her latest fencing lesson, she intervenes in a snatch-and-grab robbery attempt, and ends up being chased by the angry thief. Desperate to escape, she comes upon a strange mist that turns out to be a Magical Gateway that takes her to a forest where another crime is in progress (a Goblin has trapped a Dryad).
Lise intervenes again, saving the Dryad and impressing one of the realm’s many Goddesses. The Mist Gate closed after Lise (and her pursuer) passed into this strange world. For some reason, the would-be thief landed elsewhere and another Gate can only be opened by rare “special” people on our side (possibly ones with an unconscious belief in magic?). So the Goddess can’t get Lise back where she belongs, but she does promise that, should one of these very rare Gates open, she’ll inform the human girl and hold it open for her. In return, Lise agrees to go on a quest and rescue a group of unfairly imprisoned fairy tale beings (the book’s title characters).
In Bianculli’s version of Fairy Land, Gods and Goddesses have impressive but limited powers and must delegate many tasks to their worshippers. Equipped by her new patron Goddess and promised help and information from others along the way, Lise sets out on the long and often dangerous journey that takes up most of the book.
Along the way, her fencing skills come in handy and she collects two allies (the reluctant thief–who doesn’t immediately recognize her in native garb–and an outcast elf warrior). Those two were directed her way by another Goddess with apparently similar aims. Lise eventually learns far more about this alternate world, including why humans are now almost unknown (and deeply distrusted) in the magical world. She also learns a great deal about herself, as she and the others face a succession of dangers.
The human thief (Jason) is something of a pain in the butt, but eventually proves not as bad as she thought. His fighting skill and resolve are quite helpful, in fact, though his stubborn disbelief in magic is a handicap in their current environment. The underground-dwelling elf is an even more skilled warrior and a good, reliable guide to this new land.
A number of adventures follow, most very solidly presented. A scene in which Jason and his horse fall into a giant spider’s trap is, I fear, the lone exception. I found it very hard (even with the standard suspension of disbelief) to accept the two of them could fall into the creature’s hidden pit without suffering serious injury, and Jason’s rescue struck me as maybe a bit too easy as well. But this solitary lapse is minor, while most of the action is much more believably handled. Particularly, I was pleased to see Lise’s very mixed feelings about the necessity of harming others.
The way interactions with various characters and societies encountered along the way were handled quite decently as well. The perhaps inevitable romance between this fantasy world’s only two humans is only hinted at, and this developing relationship is well constructed (more undoubtedly to come in future parts of the series).
In the fullness of time, they reach the distant fortress and free a wide assortment of beings from the assorted Goblins, Ogres and other nasty types that have enslaved them. A group of freed prisoners arm themselves and join Lise’s little band on the attack. After numerous skirmishes (and some sobering losses), they finally foil and kill the leading on-hand Baddie, just before she can remake herself into an unstoppable Goddess.
The book ends with the rescued beings dispersing. Lise and Jason are to settle (until one of those ultra-rare Gates open) into life at a village where several of their new friends reside.
But an evil Mage (who was the slain would-be Goddess’s lover and was away on slave-trading business when the Keep fell) is still out there. He is, of course, powerful and anxious for revenge. Accordingly, I think I have a good idea what the next volume in this series will be about–and I fully intend to read it.
A final note: With its teenage protagonist (and her appropriate sensibilities), this series is geared to a Young Adult audience. But the overall writing makes it equally suitable for older heroic fantasy readers (I’m an old fart of 58 and found it enjoyable). At least three ebooks in the series are complete (and for sale at Amazon, and likely other sites).