Had Potential But Turned Out Lifeless: Rebecca Ross – A River Enchanted

This started out so well but it never found out what it wanted to be. A paperthin plot, really lazy and illogical worldbuilding, and repetitive writing made this more and more unbearable the longer I read. It’s a shame because the characters had real potential. I have no idea why this would need a sequel but whenever that comes out, I will pass. It’s not a hate-pass, just a I-so-don’t-care-what-happens-pass.

A RIVER ENCHATNED
by Rebecca Ross

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2022
Hardback: 480 pages
Series: Elements of Cadence #1
My rating: 4.5/10

Opening line: It is safest to cross the ocean at night, when the moon and stars shone on the water.

Jack Tamerlaine hasn’t stepped foot on Cadence in ten long years, content to study music at the mainland university. But when young girls start disappearing from the isle, Jack is summoned home to help find them. Enchantments run deep on Cadence: gossip is carried by the wind, plaid shawls can be as strong as armor, and the smallest cut of a knife can instill fathomless fear. The capricious spirits that rule the isle by fire, water, earth, and wind find mirth in the lives of the humans who call the land home. Adaira, heiress of the east and Jack’s childhood enemy, knows the spirits only answer to a bard’s music, and she hopes Jack can draw them forth by song, enticing them to return the missing girls.

As Jack and Adaira reluctantly work together, they find they make better allies than rivals as their partnership turns into something more. But with each passing song, it becomes apparent the trouble with the spirits is far more sinister than they first expected, and an older, darker secret about Cadence lurks beneath the surface, threatening to undo them all.

With unforgettable characters, a fast-paced plot, and compelling world building, A River Enchanted is a stirring story of duty, love, and the power of true partnership, and marks Rebecca Ross’s brilliant entry on the adult fantasy stage.

Aaaaaah, the missed potential here really hurts! I’ll try and sum things up with a brief overview and then go into each individual aspect that could have been great but totally missed the mark. Otherwise, this review will just end up as a jumble of complaints.

This is the story of an island where magical spirits roam – the Folk of the Air, Earth, Wind, and Fire – where people have magical gifts, and where a feud between clans has been going on for centuries. The West belongs to the Breccans who tend to raid the East because they’re the Bad Guys (TM). The East is for the Tamerlaines, who just defend their border and keep their people safe. So far, so unoriginal.

Jack Tamerlaine has spent the last ten years on the mainland at university, learning music and becoming a teacher himself. He returns to the island of Cadence because his clan leader has asked him in a rather convincing letter. But Jack really doesn’t want to stay, he has a life on the mainland that he is desperate to get back to.
However, when he arrives, it turns out he is quite welcome. Everyone is glad to see him, even his childhood nemesis Adaira who is the Tamerlaine heiress, one day to become laird. When Jack finds out that more than Breccan raids are troubling the East, he agrees to stay for a little while and help solve the problem of the young girls that are going missing…

The plot:

Oh boy, there is so little of it and it is all so predictable that I don’t quite know how to talk about it without spoiling. I mean, the book kind of spoils itself. Adaira is the one who called Jack to the island for the sole reason that she needs a bard – meaning Jack and his harp – because the former bard (Adaira’s mother) has died years ago. She needs a bard because only a bard can call the spirits forth and Adaira really needs to talk to them. So… that’s what they do. Jack composes a piece of music, not described any further, to call forth the spirits of the Water, the Earth, and the Wind, and Adaira proceeds to question them about their missing lasses. They end up telling them the truth and that’s that. It’s like the most boring police procedural ever!
Alongside this, of course, there’s supposed to be some kind of romance between Jack and Adaira but I honestly can’t say that we get any yearning or slow burn or anything. They are just two regular boring people who talk to each other normally – no subtext, no shyness, pretty much no emotions at all – and then at the end we’re expected to believe they are in love somehow. But that feeds into the character aspect and I first want to talk about the most glaring problem I had with this book.

The world building:

What is even the point here? So the fairies, or spirits, or Folk, or whatever are real on the island of Cadence. They want to be played music at regular intervals (like equinoxes or something, I honestly don’t remember) and you can call them and talk to them like regular people. Otherwise they don’t do much, they just exist invisibly in the background.
Far more interesting is the fact that people on Cadence are apparently born with magical gifts. But these make no sense whatsoever and are really, really not thought through. Some are more understandable and useful than others, like Sidra’s gift for creating healing tonics and knowing which herbs to grow for what purpose. But Jack’s mother Mirin, for example, has the gift of weaving magical plaids. Except nobody ever explains what those magical plaids do. Do they grant the wearer extra protection? Make them invisible? Keep them warm even when it’s freezing outside? This point is just glanced over. People are handed a plaid with Mirin’s magic woven into it and they all look reverent and thankful but I have no idea what the point of these plaids even is…
Then there’s Torin, the head of the guard, whose convenient gift is sensing when Breccans cross the clan line. Like he has some sort of spidey sense when a bad guy comes across the border and he even knows how many of them there are. Granted, that is super useful when you’re guarding the place but also what?!
Oh, I almost forgot, Sidra can also see and talk to to ghosts. This only happens twice in the book, is never mentioned again, and none of the implications of this gift are ever explored. Like what the hell? That could be its own novel right there!

I don’t think any other gifts are mentioned in any detail and if I’m really honest, what little story this book tells would have worked fine without that magic. Seriously, none of it was necessary.
Instead of asking the fairies what they knew, Adaira could have just talked to humans. The special gifts of the Tamerlaines didn’t have any impact on the plot, or indeed the characters. Sure, they get exhausted and suffer pain when using their gifts too much, but there are no real consequences for anyone using theirs in this book. So why even make this a fantasy novel when the fantasy parts are so haphazardly thrown in there, with no care or love for detail?

The characters:

Now finally I can say something nice. Not about the two protagonists, mind you, but about the side characters who totally stole the show and were the reason I finished this book at all. Let me get the bad parts out of the way first and then I can gush about Sidra and Torin.

So Jack and Adaira are both lifeless husks whose actions and words constantly contradict themselves and who seem to have no personality at all. Jack first pretends to want to get back to the mainland ASAP but then he has no problem staying and giving up his old life because he didn’t like it anyway. What? That’s not what you’ve been saying for the entire first third of the book! The relationship between the two also made no sense. It is implied that they have this great history, that when they were children a lot happened, but it turns out to be just a couple of silly pranks and that’s it. Seriously, there was not a lot of history to unpack there and what little there is (one prank involving thistles) is told in the most unemotional way ever. I did not care about them, I did not care whether they got together, and apparently, neither did they. The whole undying love part comes out of nowhere, is not believable, and I couldn’t have cared less about them.
BUT. What this book does have is great side characters with depth and moral dilemmas and a history that weighs on them. Torin and Sidra, for example, have been married for a while (although the book is unclear as to how long. At first it appears that it’s been forever, then suddenly it is mentioned that it’s a fairly new relationship. Bad writing, is all I can say to that.). They are raising Torin’s daughter Maisie from his first marriage – the wife died, we can’t have complicated things like divorce in fantasy books after all – and they have a pretty lovely life together. It’s badly told but it becomes clear that Sidra has doubts about whether Torin is with her because he loves her or simply because he needed help with his daughter. Watching how these two, both filled with doubt and fear, open up to each other and find out whether it’s love that keeps them together or necessity, that was truly beautiful! Especially because we get to read both their perspectives.
I also quite liked Jack’s mother Mirin as a character and Jack’s surprise little sister Frae even though Mirin’s reasons for keeping quiet about some things are less than logical. But at least they had personality.

The writing and internal logic:

I swear if I had to read “old menace” one more time, this would have ended as a DNF. This book suffers from several writing issues, first and foremost a lack of foreshadowing that makes everything feel like it comes out of left field and contradicts what we’ve been told before.

From the very start we know Jack is returning to his home island after ten years on the mainland. So far so okay. But nowhere does it say that Jack was in any way ostracized from his clan. That only comes out later, mentioned somewhere as if it were nothing. It turns out his father is some unknown man (his mother simply won’t admit who it is but if you’re older than five you can pretty much guess this oh so surprising plot twist), and thus Jack somehow doesn’t belong anywhere? That is not consistent with what we are shown because he is received with open arms from literally everyone and nobody does or says anthing to make him feel like he’s not a real Tamerlaine. Quite the opposite, in fact.

But it’s not just aspects of Jack’s life. All the characters and plot points get at least one moment where I wondered if I had missed a chapter somewhere that hinted at a certain tradition or a rule about the magic system or something. I hadn’t. This book just doesn’t have any foreshadowing. But it has bad world building to make up for that. Whenever the author thought of something, she put it in the book, not bothering to go back and make it believable or check whether it fit in with what she had already told us. This gets so very frustrating because you also never know what the rules are. If some great obstacle comes up, it might just turn out there’s an easy solution that the characters pretend to have known all along but that has never occurred to the reader because it was never even in the realm of possibilities.
It’s like if you read a contemporary novel and suddenly someone whips out a wand and heals a broken bone, pretending that this is normal and you shouldn’t be surprised. This is just how the world works, don’t ya know?

The writing itself, on a sentence level, is a little better but also far from good. The constant ridiculous way Adaira calls Jack “her old menace” (again, as if they shared some deep bond when they really haven’t seen each other in ten years and then just pranked each other as 10-year-olds a couple of times) is neither funny nor poignant. It’s just annoying.
And most of the dialogue, although not particularly bad as such, was just so… mundane. Dialogue in books and movies isn’t the same as in real life. It just sounds wrong. So reading about two people planning to meet each other tomorrow at this and this time by that rock or whatever, is just plain boring. Do I really want the businesslike transaction of setting a time for a meeting spelled out for me? Not in a fantasy novel, I don’t. This is one of my smaller gripes but it may explain better why this plot-less book is almost 500 pages long.
“Have you set the table, honey” “Not yet, I’ll go do that right away, Mom” – that kind of transaction is partly to blame.

Lastly, there were a few scenes that I think were supposed to be suspenseful. Whenever Jack played for the Folk so Adaira could ask them questions, there were brief moments of… okay, fine, I’ll call it danger. But these were described in such a way that I was never in any doubt how things would end. Like not only would everyone survive, but there wouldn’t even be a scratch on them.
The same goes for those Breccan raids that everyone is so afraid of. Unfortunately (you know how I mean it) we never get to see such a raid or the effects they have, so there was never an atmosphere of danger. In fact, the whole feud, the power of the spirits, anything that could make Cadence interesting, is only things we are told. And then we are shown the complete opposite. A super lovely island, people who care about and respect each other, living in peace, everyone is safe and even when bad stuff happens, it’s only super brief and when it’s over, nobody is hurt.

Overall impressions:

It will come as no surprise that I didn’t particularly like this book. Then again, it also wasn’t terrible. Except for the world building, none of its flaws were bad enough for me to truly hate this book. I was simply in a constant state of being underwhelmed and surprised by the random things that popped up and were supposed to have always been there. The ending has one tiny plot twist in store that could actually have made things interesting but, just like any scene involving “danger”, it was over before it began and left no emotional impact whatsoever.
By the life of me, I cannot imagine what would warrant a sequel. Rebecca Ross had nothing to say in this book so what could she possibly have to add in a second one? Oh well, if you want to find out, you’ll have to look elsewhere. I will definitely skip it.

MY RATING: 4.5/10 – Bad to meh

P.S.: It just came to me that even the opening line is an example of the bad world building. “It is safest to cross the ocean at night, when the moon and stars shone on the water.” Nowhere is that ever explained! It just sounds cool but there’s not a single bit of information or world building that would support such a statement.

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