Something Completely Different: Elphame’s Choice by P.C. Cast

Elphame's Choice cover Worshipped. Set apart. Unable to connect with others.

Though most girls believe they are different, Elphame knows she is. Odd. Strange. Unique. No one in Partholon has her abilities – or her connection to their goddess. And she has a destiny she is about to discover…

A restlessness has infused her, leading her to the other side of her country. There, the remnants of an evil war still linger. Will Elphame be able to redeem both her country and her soul mate, a survivor of that war? The choice she makes now may bring disaster – or a future in which she may never again be alone.
Kay and I have always wondered if, free from whatever influences or ideas about the cognitive limitations of teenagers that resulted in the abysmal House of Night series, PC Cast might be a decent author. She’s had plenty of books published prior to that series becoming a hit, and they seemed to have interesting enough concepts. Plus, as much as it pains us to admit it, there have been bits and pieces of interesting ideas in Cast’s god-awful opus, even if they’re easy to overlook given the context. We tossed around theories, like how perhaps House of Night is an extremely prolonged fluke, or made worse by the influence of her daughter and the insipid “teen speak”, or even a calculated plot to capitalize on the Twilight craze, that was dumbed down intentionally in a misguided attempt to appeal to a younger audience. I mean, from an established author with like fifty bajillion books to her name, writing like the writing in House of Night can’t be the norm, can it?

Hence the desire to read Elphame’s Choice, despite our less than fuzzy feelings towards her most popular work. Choice is an extension of Cast’s adult series, Partholon, and the first of a pair of books set in that world, intended for a YA audience. So how did it stack up? Surprisingly….not as bad as we’d expected. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not great, either; I’m not even sure it constitutes “good”. But it’s generally free of ear-bleeding stupidity, and quite honestly that’s more than I expected.

First of all, let’s be clear, Elphame’s Choice is not really a paranormal romance novel. It takes place in a completely different world that has more of a fantasy influence, being in an unspecified medieval time period, with all the warriors, sorcerers, archers, hunters, and what have you that go along with that era. Oh, and centaurs. That’s how you know it’s fantasy, after all. But I wouldn’t be so quick to shelve it with your Lord of the Rings or your Game of Thrones, either. Elphame’s Choice places far too little emphasis on any sort of epic plot or conflict for it to even come near the realm of either of those books.

So what we really have in Elphame’s Choice is an expanded dramatic romance novel, with fantasy touches and aspirations. Despite what the flap summary would lead you to believe, most of Choice is devoted to slowly developing the characters’ relationships and situations. Conflict is almost an afterthought, and conflict on any sort of grand scale is totally non-existent.

Story-wise, Elphame’s Choice primarily follows the titular heroine as she sets out to restore an ancient castle that was once home to her family’s ancestors. Well, that’s our excuse for setting the story in motion, anyway. Really it’s about Elphame’s quest for acceptance, after having lived a life being set apart from everyone else. Elphame is half-horse, you see – more in a satyr way than centaur, although her father *is* a centaur to begin with – and this is a manifestation of her being touched by Epona.


No, not that one, the horse goddess, who in Elphame’s Choice is also apparently the goddess of dawn, and big shit in the world of Partholon. As someone so clearly “touched by the goddess”, Elphame always been revered and worshiped and treated well, but never befriended, so naturally she’s struck with a serious case of emo and alone.

On the goddess topic, I have to mention that this book has a lot of familiar elements. I do hate harping on the House of Night thing, but much of Elphame’s choice feels like a template for the series. Though it doesn’t get much expansion, the world is incredibly familiar – a matriarchal society devoted to the worship of a single goddess, with element-based rituals and ceremonies presided over by a single powerful woman who has a direct line to the Goddess herself? Sound familiar? Plus, we have a heroine who has been specifically chosen by the Goddess for some grand destiny, and a love interest who comes from a group of alienated and previously undiscovered hybrids who need magical saving from the dark impulses inside them. Seriously, swap the centaurs for vampyres, Epona for Nyx, Fomorians half-breeds for Red Fledglings, and shoddy teen-speak for sketchy “ye olde speake”, and you’ve got your basic set-up for House of Night.

I know it’s not uncommon for authors to re-use elements from their earlier works, and to be fair, the story is much more introspective than House of Night ever dreamt of being, but it’s all so familiar. Elphame even performs the same sort of element-evoking rituals that I swear to God, you could paste over one of Zoey’s in House of Night without anyone being the wiser. Characters even get the dreaded plot-convenience “Feelings” that allow them to make irrational decisions as the plot demands. Yay! I missed those so much. It just struck me as a little lazy, and rather disappointing, actually. I wanted to see if she could do outside of the House of Night spectrum, and was hoping for more of a variety.

But…well, Elphame’s Choice puts the emphasis on the characters, not the world, which is a shame, because more world exploration might have yielded that variety. It’s implied that Partholon is a polytheistic world, so apparently Epona isn’t the only Goddess on the block, but who else is there? Is Epona at the top of the pyramid? Does everyone revere her the way Elphame’s family does, or is she hot shit with them because they’re the head of the Epona-worshiping cult? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, because we’re not given much of a look at anything outside of Elphame’s narrow realm of existence. It’s never even really made clear what kind of gods inhabit this land – are they Greek, Roman, Celtic, all of the above? Most of Elphame’s family heritage and mythology seem to be Celtic-based, but there are other bits that don’t quite fit in with that – like references to a Temple of the Muses – and make the mythology muddled and unclear. It could be that all of these were questions answered in the previous Partholon books, which I suppose is fair enough, but it was still a bit disappointing to be teased with the idea of this huge, completely new world and not be given much information about it.

What we do see of Partholon is generally pretty idyllic – a bit unrealistically so, actually. Other reviews have called Cast’s world in this novel a “Mary Sue world”, and I can’t say I disagree – there’s very little inter-personal strife, all of the bit characters are friendly and accepting, and any of them worth mentioning by name are unfailingly gorgeous. Elphame’s people trust in her leadership implicitly and every single one of them love and respect her unconditionally. They shrug off what most would consider a “betrayal” of their trust without so much as questioning her judgement; and they easily accept a man who is a) half-demon, and b) might have killed one of their comrades into their fold simply because she says so. All of this trust is basically handed to Elphame after a few inspiring speeches and demonstrations of divinity, so somehow she manages to get that love and acceptance that she always wanted while still being unduly elevated above her people, thanks to those Goddess-given powers that have alienated her for her entire life. Makes sense.

At any rate, much of Elphame’s Choice revolves around characters looking for acceptance and belonging. The two secondary heroines, Brenna and Brighid, consider themselves outcasts, and much noise is made about how most of the characters who have come on Elphame’s quest did so because they felt out of place in their former lives. Like Elphame, they all “Feel” – ugh – that by helping to restore this castle, they might find a home. Accordingly, the first three-quarters of the book focus primary on a) the day-to-day restoration of the castle and establishment of Elphame’s new household, and b) the progression of the character’s relationships, and the growing sense of acceptance that they get from one another.

On the bright side, this desire to belong initially results in a bond between the three primary female characters, and they form a friendship that strengthens each without serving as a means to elevate one over the others. The time taken to establish and develop their friendship is well-spent – I really did believe that they cared for one another, I enjoyed their bond, and was glad that they had found real companionship. In fact, the female camaraderie that you see here is stronger than in most YA novels: as I said earlier, there’s never actually any strife or petty jealousies between the women, and for once they’re not all after the same cock. It’s a MIRACLE.

Unfortunately, as is typically the case, you haven’t truly found your place in the world until you’ve found your ~true love~, which means that we’re also subjected to two different but equally problematic romances. The lesser of two evils, I suppose, is Brenna’s relationship with Elphame’s brother, Cuchulainn. In the realm of Romance Novel Relationship Cliches, Brenna and Cuchulainn’s love story is the Ugly Girl’s Wish Fulfillment. Sounds harsh, I know, but there’s really no other way to describe it. This is where the ugly, plain, or in Brenna’s case, severely scarred girl is relentlessly pursued by the gorgeous and/or wealthy playboy, who has seen beyond any aesthetic deficiencies to fall deeply in love with the ~beautiful girl inside~. It’s a pretty pandering concept in the best of cases, but Cuchulainn and Brenna’s relationship is made even more difficult to swallow by the fact that he falls instantly in love with her for absolutely no good reason. While Brenna does eventually develop a personality as the book progresses, when she first meets Cuchulainn, she is quiet and mousy and timid and generally pretty unremarkable – she just doesn’t do or say anything even remotely interesting. But of course Cuchulainn is instantly besotted, can’t get her out of his head, I guess because he can ~see the fascinating girl underneath~ or something.

To Cast’s credit, Cu and Brenna do eventually get to know one another, and their relationship development fares better as Brenna comes out of her shell and becomes more of a character. She’s never all that interesting – she’s too perfect and sweet and demure and insecure for that, but she does do interesting things, occasionally. She questions Cuchulainn’s motives once he reveals his desire for her, and Cu makes all sorts of stupid mistakes trying to woo her. Still, the wish-fulfillment meter is off the charts – Cuchulainn is absurdly patient, reassuring, gentle, gallant, understanding, devoted, and fascinated by Brenna. He cries when she tells him about all the horrible things she’s had to endure in her life, tries to show his nurturing side by taking in a puppy and nursing it back to health, uses his years of sexual experience to make her first time ~magical~, and pretty much instantly stops looking at any other woman, despite his man-whore past. It all adds up to make Cuchulainn more fantasy lover than believable character, and honestly, that kinda takes the appeal out of the relationship. For me, at least.

However, at least he’s likable. Elphame isn’t so lucky. Her “lifemate”, Lochlan.is one of the creepiest, least appealing romantic leads I’ve read about in a time. He’s a centuries-old half “Fomorian” – essentially a vampire with wings – who has been dreaming about Elphame since she was born, steadily watching her grow up in his dreams and falling in love with her. He comes from the usual brooding, tormented stalker stock, but rather than taking on the Aloof, Charming, Protective, or even Dickwad-for-Your-Sake persona to mask it, Lochlan is Creepy Desperate from the get-go. When the story begins, he’s taken to hanging around the woods outside of Elphame’s new castle, mooning over how much he loves her despite having never met her in real life. He has to constantly fighting his inner demon’s desire to rape and kill her, in addition to battling his “rational” motivation to fulfill a prophecy that requires killing her and drinking her blood or something to save his race of half-demons from the madness in their demon heritage. In the midst of the two he finds time to masturbate to the thought of her, expressing his lust by raking his fingers down the side of a rock until they’re bloody in the process.

There’s absolutely nothing likable about Lochlan’s character. He’s predisposed to sexual violence, his denial of these urges is driving him insane, his sole defining character trait is this guilt-ridden duality, he falls in love with teenagers from his dreams, and two minutes after he meets Elphame, he’s already referring to her as “love” to her face. He’s creepy, creepy, creepy – his behavior and mentality are the epitome of “deranged stalker”, and yet he is seriously the Author-Ordained love interest. Elphame meets this guy and finds him attractive. She marries him. She is perfectly okay with the fact that this hundred-year-old dude has probably been masturbating to her memory since she hit puberty. Ick. Ick. I mean, usually, I can see how Stalker characters appeal to their heroines and the readers even if I don’t like it, but I honestly do not get Lochlan’s appeal, to anyone. No. Just no.

And speaking of masturbating – yeah, that whole til-my-fingers-bleed thing actually happens in the book, and we read about it in detail. We also read about Elphame’s two sexual encounters with Lochlan in more pornographic detail. I mean, really, I’m not usually one to criticize sex in teen literature, because it’s a reality of teen life, and I don’t think it’s something to demonize or be ashamed of, but this is different. This sex serves no purpose in the story except to titillate, and aside from the fact that Elphame is having sex with a guy who gives me child-molester skeevies, I’ve seen twelve-year-olds reading House of Night. Cast’s audience starts pretty young, and she’s writing explicit sex scenes designed to get them hot?

Also creepy.

And yeah, not gonna lie, Elphame’s bottom half being a horse with a human vagina? Not hot.

In retrospect, I think what makes Elphame’s Choice readable is the mystery. Not that there’s an actual mystery to be solved – god forbid – but that you really have no idea where this book is going to go. It took me about half the page count to realize what I explained in the first paragraph of this review – that this was a romance novel, not a fantasy. Though the flap summary may seem vague on the details, in reality, it’s a pretty accurate representation of all the plot you’re going to get: Elphame leaves home. Daily life stuff happens. Cast teases you with ideas of evil and war and political conflict, and then puts off any plot progression until the, oh, let’s say last fifth of the book, which is wrapped up pretty handily without exploring any of that.

The ending was a huge disappointment. It was rushed, comprised of a conveniently-timed conflict, needless emotional manipulation, and capped off with a rather magnificent cop-out. I’ll admit, even after it became apparent that the romantic aspect of this book was the important part, I was hoping for some kind of physical conflict. A battle, a scuffle, Hell, even a duel would have been satisfactory. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the cards.

The primary conflict in the book involves Lochlan’s people’s belief that killing Elphame will bring about an end to their madness. The prophecy that is the basis for this beliefe is pretty cut and dried, implying they need to ingest Elphame’s blood to cure themselves. Naturally, even before Cast contrives a completely different interpretation from a prophecy that wasn’t at all ambiguous to begin with, Lochaln talks himself out of killing Elphame, ’cause, y’know, they’re in love and shit. Unfortunately, this is when fellow half-demons show up to see how the mission is going, and, well, they aren’t as inclined to let regard for Elphame’s life keep them from their sanity.

Mechanically, the ending just doesn’t work for me – the other Formorian’s timing is incredibly convenient – they show up at the end of the book, when the relationships have pretty much finished developing and the book has nowhere else to go. It’s not quite an ass-pull, because Cast at least has enough foresight to set-up their arrival halfway through – with one scene – but you still gotta love that perfect timing, as though they were hanging out in the wings waiting for their cue.

Then the “catalyst” for the finale, Brenna’s death, was frustrating as all Hell to me. Cast lead her through the story like a lamb to slaughter, developing her for what seems like the sole purpose of killing her off. Normally I’d applaud an author’s willingness to make me like a character and then kill her off, but in this case, the whole thing feels extraneous. I don’t see what purpose her death served, and as such, what purpose her character served in general. Her death didn’t even come close to accomplishing what her murderer had hoped, and there are an abundance of infinitely more exciting ways that Cast could have been kicked off the climax itself – like the aforementioned battle, scuffle, or duel. She “tamed” Cuchulainn, I guess, but his heartache at Brenna’s death ultimately had no impact on this story – though I admit, it may have some impact on the next.

Still, even if that weren’t an issue, the depiction of Brenna’s death would be – she didn’t fight, she didn’t run, she didn’t even try to do any of those things. She just sort of froze up like a deer in the headlights, and spent her last few moments of life reflecting peacefully on how at least she “knew love and acceptance” before her death, and praying that Cuchulainn wouldn’t mourn for her for too long.

What.

Are you freaking serious? SERIOUSLY? You’re going to tell me that she just ACCEPTED her death because she “knew love”? I’ve known love, that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to FIGHT LIKE HELL if someone were to try and kill me. In fact, you’d think that this love would be a good reason for me to fight even more, y’know, if I couldn’t muster the will to fight for myself. Knowing love doesn’t mean you had a complete life, people aren’t like “Oh hey, I’ve gotten laid now, I’m going to just keel over seeing as how I have NOTHING ELSE TO LIVE FOR.” In her last moments, Brenna doesn’t act like a human being – she acts like a character who knows it’s her lot in life to die, just so that the story will be more ~tragic~ and carry more dramatic weight.

It just gets worse from there on – the battle that I’d been hoping for to deal with the threat of the Fomorians is taken care of by Lochlan, completely off screen, resolving that conflict as anti-climactically as possible. This means that our actual climactic moment is Elphame’s titular choice, and the repercussions of that decision.

Conceptually, the whole sacrifice-for-sanity thing was an interesting idea, but Cast doesn’t do much with it. We just aren’t given that much of a reason to care about the outcome, and even if we did, we know by virtue of this being a romance novel that the chances of a tragic ending are pretty damn slim. The book would have been more interesting if that were a legitimate possibility, but you know from the start that it’s not. We’re going to get a happy ending, so Lochlan isn’t going to kill Elphame, and Elphame won’t end up crazy if she ingests Lochlan’s blood, thus there’s no real dramatic tension. Cast could have built up Elphame’s character by at least having her bear the weight of the choice for more than like half a page, but she doesn’t find out about the prophecy until the very end, and well…let’s just say she doesn’t dwell on it for long.

And then just as we expected, a great big literal deus ex machina keeps her from paying the price that the contrived interpretation of the prophecy guaranteed us. How very satisfying.

As I said earlier, Elphame’s Choice is a more interesting read if you don’t know that it’s going, well, nowhere. As much as I disliked the ending, for the most part, I enjoyed the ride. I actually found the bits about restoring the castle the most interesting, and the carrot of conflict Cast dangled in front of me was enough to keep me reading. The writing was passable, if not spectacular, and I will probably end up reading the sequel if I can find it, because I suspect that may be where the bulk of the conflict I’d been looking for takes place. But there are definitely issues, and, with a clear view of how this book, on its own, turns out, I can’t say it’s very high on my list of recommendations. It’s certainly better than House of Night, but part of me wonders, if I didn’t have such low expectations, would I have enjoyed it as much?

Who knows? For now, we’ll call it a solid two stars.

two stars


 

4 Responses

  1. Arti

    June 22, 2015 7:21 pm, Reply

    …I am really impressed by your ability to read this book and write an actual review of it without just dying of laughter because the heroine has horse legs.

    I cannot get past it. She has the lower body (except for magical sex organs!) of a horse.

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