Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Good Witch of the West, Vol. 1: The Girl of Sera Field (book) by Noriko Ogiwara, illustrations by Haruhiko Momokawa

The Girl of Sera Field, the first volume of Ogiwara's The Good Witch of the West, is a fantasy light novel. I found it at a used bookstore. It was published by Tokyopop, which, unless it has lurched to life again, no longer publishes anything in North America.

My review is a bit spoiler-y.

Synopsis:

Firiel is excited: now that she's 15, she can celebrate Queen's Birthday by attending the ball at the Count of Rualgo's castle. She has spent her whole life in tiny little Sera Field, cared for mostly by Madame and Master Holy, and now she'll get to wear a bit of finery and dance among aristocrats. Madame Holy has made her a beautiful new dress, but the biggest surprise is something Rune, her father's apprentice, brings her: a beautiful necklace with a blue gemstone. All Rune can say is that it may have belonged to her mother, who died long ago.

The ball isn't what Firiel expected. Her dress doesn't look quite as gorgeous next to the clothing of the aristocrats, and no one seems eager to ask her to dance. Her friend Marie goes looking for Lady Adale, hoping to impress her enough to one day become her lady's maid, and Firiel goes with her. Firiel catches the eye of Eusis (Lord Eusis Roland? Also, the next Count of Rualgo), who is sure he's seen her somewhere before. Firiel and Marie are both flustered and have no clue what Eusis is talking about. Eusis' friend, Baron Lot Chrisbard, lightens things up a bit and encourages Eusis to ask Firiel to dance, while he dances with Marie.

The evening suddenly becomes much lovelier for Firiel and Marie. Lady Adale's arrival should make things even better, except that Adale recognizes Firiel's necklace. It's the necklace of Princess Edilene, who disappeared at around the same time Firiel was born. In fact, Edilene was Firiel's mother. However, Edilene relinquished her title, so nothing has really changed: Firiel is still a commoner. The only difference is, she can now consider Adale her cousin (Adale was adopted into the Roland family).

When Firiel goes home, she figures this will be the last of it. Lady Adale may be her cousin, but she'll still have an ordinary life in Sera Field. Unfortunately, her life takes a rapid turn for the worse: someone's been murdered, her astrologer father has disappeared and may be the murderer, and people are after both her and Rune.

Review:

I might have liked this book better if the beginning hadn't been such a slog to get through. The pacing was kind of bad, and Firiel was so very beloved by everyone. It seemed like the only blemish in her life was her relationship with her father, but, since she barely lived with him, it didn't seem to matter much. Thankfully, the story picked up a bit after Firiel met Eusis and found out her mother's true identity.

The story also became surprisingly dark. Firiel's perfect little life came crashing down around her ears. She, a naive, cheerful, fairly protected young girl, suddenly found herself dealing with death, abandonment, and the uncovering of all kinds of family lies. After how light and fluffy much of the previous book had been, I was surprised at the scene in which Rune was beaten. It wasn't “on page,” but it was still more violence than I had expected. To be clear, I didn't consider this a drawback, it just didn't seem to fit with the way the book began.

I can't say I disliked Firiel, but I was frustrated with her. It's unfair of me, because she did live such a quiet and sheltered life. Even so, I considered Rune's cynicism to be a breath of fresh air. His hard life prior to becoming Firiel's father's apprentice had taught him how untrustworthy some people could be, and there were times I wish Firiel had listened to Rune more. Of course, if she had, there probably wouldn't have been much of a story.

As dazzled as Firiel was by Eusis and Eusis by Firiel, there are already hints of a potential love triangle: I have a feeling Rune has a crush on Firiel. I couldn't help but wince when Firiel told him he was like her brother. Anyway, so far the danger and politics are more interesting than the romance. Unfortunately, I kept expecting things to become more complicated than they did. For example, Adale was so incredibly good, charming, beautiful, and wonderful that I absolutely knew she had to secretly be evil. Her invitation to Firiel to stay the night was really a way to keep an eye on someone who might become her rival (I somehow doubt that Firiel won't eventually become a potential heir to the throne). Except that didn't turn out to be the case. Not once did Adale act like anything other than a loving new friend and cousin. When Adale admitted to writing fanfic (by the way, she already ships Rune and Eusis), I found it even harder to take my “she must be a secret enemy” idea seriously. I felt twitchy, constantly expecting enemies where there were none. I can only hope that, if I read on, enemies pop out from every corner and the politics becomes darker and twistier.

All in all, this book was okay, but I wish it hadn't taken so long to get to the part where Firiel found out about the true origins of her necklace. The potential for political intrigue made me want to read on, as did the bits and pieces of the mystery of Firiel's parents' past (Firiel's father's astrological research is considered heretical. Fairy tales are also considered to be heretical, and Firiel is one of the few who knows them.). However, the amount of slogging I had to do to get through the first part of this book makes me hesitate to hunt down the next one.

Other Comments:

There were some editing issues: occasional missing words and forgotten closing quotation marks.

Extras:

This isn't exactly an extra but, as with most light novels I've read, there were black-and-white illustrations. I had trouble reconciling my mental image of Eusis with the illustrations of him (unless those were actually of Lot?).

One extra I would have loved to have seen was the family trees of the royal family and the Rolands. I had some trouble keeping the names and relationships straight. I suppose that's sad, since only a few people have been mentioned so far.

Read-alikes:
  • The Golden Compass (book) by Philip Pullman - Another book starring a girl who learns that there's more to her parents' identities than she thought. What she doesn't know about her parents and herself ends up landing her in a lot of trouble and adventure. I've written about the audio book and the movie based on the book.
  • Howl's Moving Castle (book) by Diana Wynne Jones - Just a warning: I don't think this read-alike goes both ways. Those who enjoyed Howl's Moving Castle might find The Girl of Sera Field to be a little too simplistic at times. I'd also argue that Sophie is much more intelligent than Firiel. I added Howl's Moving Castle to the list because of its fairy tale-like aspects and fantasy politics. There's also an anime movie based on the book, but it's drastically different, at least after a certain point. I've written about the movie adaptation.
  • The Good Witch of the West (manga) story by Noriko Ogiwara, art by Haruhiko Momokawa - I'm not sure how many volumes of this Tokyopop released, or if they ever released the whole series. I thought I'd include it anyway. I might try it out, just to see if the story appeals to me more in manga format.
  • Spice & Wolf (book) by Isuna Hasekura, illustrated by Jyuu Ayakura - If you'd like another light novel series set in a Western-ish fantasy world, you might give this a try. It stars a traveling merchant and a wolf goddess of the harvest. I've reviewed the first novel, as well as both seasons of the anime.

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