Thirteen-year-old Flora Fyrdraaca is a few days away from her fourteenth birthday, an important rite of passage in Califa, where it is celebrated with a ceremony called a Catorcena. She is ambivalent about this upcoming rite of passage, because it means she will then go to the barracks to begin training to be a soldier, as has every Fyrdraaca in a long, long line of Fyrdraacas. It is a family tradition - her own mother is the commanding general of the Califa army, and her father, now a shadow of his former self, also fought in the war against the Huitzil War (a war from which her eldest sister, the first Flora, never returned).
Flora's house, Crackpot Hall, used to be a glorious place. All the big houses have butlers, powerful magical beings that take care of the house in wonderful magical ways, but Flora's mother mistrusts magic and has banished Crackpot's butler. So it falls on Flora's shoulders to run the household, as her mother is often away - she cooks and cleans, takes care of the horses, not to mention five frolicking and often destructive gazehounds. She cannot board at Sanctuary School because of her duties, but also because of Hotspur, her father (whom she calls Poppy). Poppy is an amazing, wonderfully realized character. At first he seems sad and pathetic, a soldier whose spirit was broken in captivity. Then we witness his madness and his rage, which is terrifying to Flora - not to mention the other, more subtle aspects of his behavior, such as the self-inflicted cuts on his arms.
One day Flora, desperate to make it to school on time, takes the elevator in Crackpot Hall (despite her mother's expressly forbidding its use), and she ends up in the vast, dusty Bibliotheca, where she meets the wispy, diminished, banished butler, Valefor. He begs her for some of her Anima, or Will, before he fades away into nothing. In return, he will help her out, take over some of the chores - help her finish up her invitations and Catorcena dress. Flora is moved by sympathy for him, not to mention a bit of self interest. But she does not realize that her actions will have far-reaching, not to mention life-threatening, consequences.
This book is so dense and complex, wonderfully creative and surprising that it is difficult to do it justice. Flora is a compelling, sympathetic heroine, and readers will empathize with her on many levels. Her life is not easy, but she only occasionally wastes time feeling sorry for herself. She dreams of being a Ranger, a sort of magical military spy (the group was disbanded after the war on the insistence of the Huitzils), rather than go to the barracks. Her idol, the Ranger Nini Mo, gives Flora inspiration, and her words of advice (gleaned from years of poring over yellow-back adventures novels starring the now deceased Ranger) often spring to Flora's mind as she navigates the many difficult decisions she is faced with in the novel. Flora's mother, Buck, is not physically present in much of the book, but her strength of character is a powerful presence throughout nevertheless.
And then there's Udo, Flora's best friend. At first he appears to be a rather superficial fop, but of course Flora would not waste her energy on a best friend like that. Rather, Udo is a loyal, intelligent friend who adds more than a dash of humor to this quirky tale that otherwise might linger a little too much on the dark side of things. Crackpot Hall is a character in and of itself, with its 11,000 rooms with their unusual, evocative names (such as The Cloakroom of the Abyss, The Hallway of Laborious Desire, and The Stairs of Exuberance). When Udo and Flora accompany Valefor, freed from his years of imprisonment in the Bibliotheca, through the house, he gives them a running commentary:
"The Slippery Stairs, where Anacreon Fyrdracca broke his nose sliding down on a tea tray...Beekeeping Room, don't bother them, Udo, and they won't bother you...Formerly Secret Cubbyhole...Because it can't be secret if you know where it is, that's why, Madama Smartie...Luggage Mezzanine...I wonder if that salesman is still in the linen basket, I should come back and check...Eternal Atrium, look how large that tree has become, I must raise the roof in here or it's going to go right through the ceiling...The Gun room, what on earth did Buck do with my .50 caliber Gatling...The Halfway Point..."And then there's the plot - twisting, subtle, surprising, Byzantine, exciting...all this, and more: a notorious pirate with a secret, menacing half-bird Quetzal overlords, oubliettes, harebrained but well-meaning daring rescues, a gigantic fearsome tusked Butler, time travel, elusive magical Semiote Verbs, and more. There is indeed a lot going on, action-wise, but that's not to say that there is by any means a lack of depth and emotional resonance. Flora's relationship with her father, in particular, is complex and touching. Flora grows up a lot in those last few days before she becomes an official adult, and I am very much looking forward to her further adventures in Flora's Dare.
Listening to the audio version of this book made me realize it is truly one of those stories that is meant to be read aloud, as the excellent narration highlights the evocative language and characters' distinctive voices. I highly recommend this novel to all lovers of fantasy, regardless of their age, and I think it will have tremendous appeal in particular for fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Phillip Reeve and Terry Pratchett.
And here is an interview with the author.
Books in the Flora Segunda series:
1. Flora Segunda
2. Flora's Dare
Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog (#1 in the by Ysabeau S. Wilce; narrated by Danielle Ferland (Recorded Books, 2007)
Also reviewed at:
Little Blog of Stories: "Flora is independent, curious and willful, and the book is just great. Set in a magical alternate world California, Flora's tale is like the beautiful love-child of the story of Aladdin's Lamp and Zorro tales. I can't recommend it or its sequel enough."
Tamaranth's Non-Ephemera: "Flora's language is occasionally quite childish, but she's a brave and resourceful -- if occasionally reckless -- character with an innate talent for magick, who matures and changes over the course of the novel."