The Gates of Sleep, by Mercedes Lackey (Elemental Masters #3)

>> Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Well, waiting so long before finding wonderful authors like Mercedes Lackey certainly does have a silver lining: I can gobble up her series in one go. After The Fire Rose and The Serpent's Shadow, the first two books in Lackey's Elemental Masters series, comes The Gates of Sleep (excerpts: prologue, chapter 1, chapter 2), based on the Sleeping Beauty tale.

For seventeen years, Marina Roeswood had lived in the care of close friends of her wealthy, aristocratic parents. As the ward of bohemian artists in turn-of-the-century England, she had grown to be a free thinker in an environment of fertile creativity and cultural sophistication. But the real core of her education was far outside societal norms. For she and her foster parents were Elemental Masters of magic, and learning to control her growing powers was Marina's primary focus.

But though Marina's life seemed idyllic, her existence was riddled with mysteries. Why had she never seen her parents, or been to Oakhurst, her family's ancestral manor? And why hadn't her real parents trained her themselves? Marina could get no clues out of her guardians. But with the sudden death of her birth parents, Marina met her new guardian—her father's eldest sister Arachne. Aunt Arachne exuded a dark magical aura unlike anything Marina had encountered, a stifling evil that seemed to threaten Marina's very spirit. Slowly Marina realized that her aunt was the embodiment of the danger her parents had been hiding her from in the depths of the country. But could Marina unravel the secrets of her life in time to save herself?
I quite liked The Gates of Sleep, but my overall enjoyment was somewhat diminished by a few instances in which the author relied on characters acting in unbelievable ways to further the plot. Still, what I liked I liked enough to give this a B.

The book starts wonderfully, with a prologue, the baptism scene (which you can read here) which was colourful and atmospheric and the perfect fairy tale adaptation.

It's the very late years of the 19th century (or very early of the 20th, I'm not 100% sure. Turn-of-the-century, at any rate) and Elemental Masters Alanna and Hugh Roeswood have gathered with their closest friends on the occasion of their daughter's christening. Their friends are also Masters, and as part of the ceremony, they each approach baby Marina and grant her a gift: skillful hands and deft fingers from one, physical grace from another, and so on.

When only one of the girl's godparents is left to bestow her gift, there's an unexpected interruption. Hugh's long estranged sister, Arachne, waltzes in and, while all present are frozen in their chairs, as if caught up in a strange spell, curses Marina. She is to die before her 18th birthday.

Fortunately, though, the child still has a gift to receive from her remaining godmother, a powerful Elemental Master who manages to place some restrictions on the curse. Arachne will need to be in close contact with Marina to awaken the dormant curse, and if she doesn't do so before the girl turns 18, the curse will rebound on Arachne.

So how to make sure Arachne doesn't get her evil hands on Marina? Why, Marina should be hidden, of course. And so it is decided that until she turns 18, Marina will live with Sebastian and Margherita Tarrant and the latter's brother, Thomas Buford. Until the danger is over, she will be in contact with her parents only by letter. Hugh and Alanna (and most especially Alanna) obviously aren't at all happy about this, but it's deemed by all to be the best solution for the problem, and so parents and child are parted.

Fast forward 17 years, and Marina is fast approaching that critical age. As the day comes closer, it's more and more likely that Arachne will try something drastic, so Marina's guardians bring someone in to tutor her in her magic, especially her defenses. But before the training can go very far, disaster strikes and Arachne finds and takes control of her niece. And worst of all, Marina has gone into the situation blind, because she hasn't ever been told about the curse.

Ok, where to start? The first part of the book I flat-out loved. Maybe the first 150 pages? Right until the lawyers arrived with their bad news. It had the same type of fairy-tale feel as the prologue, and I really enjoyed seeing Marina's relationship with her guardians and the development of her magic as she grows.

Though, I must say, there was quite a bit of stupid behaviour even here that felt SO forced to me! This is what I meant above, when I talked about characters behaving unbelievably. From the extremely hurried decision that the only thing that could be done was to send Marina away, never to see her parents for the next 18 years (such a big decision to make without even exploring alternatives!), to Marina's guardians' extremely iffily reasoned decision to keep her in the dark about the curse even once she'd practically become an adult; from Marina's stupid reaction to her nightmare, to the way everyone froze when the lawyers came and didn't even try to do anything, even though they knew this was a life or death situation!

My problem with all this wasn't only that this behaviour was stupid, it was out-of-character too. I mean, maybe not Marina's reaction to her nightmare, because remember, she doesn't know she's in danger, but the others? Not at all in-character. These people behaving stupidly are shown by Lackey to be otherwise sensible, intelligent, resourceful persons, and yet in these instances, they don't behave as such. I guess you can tell this drove me crazy.

After the scene with the lawyers, once Marina comes into extremely close contact with Arachne, my enjoyment dimmed for a while, maybe because I was so pissed off at what her guardians had allowed to happen. It was just painful to see the very innocent and naive Marina walk blind into danger and begin to believe the crap she was told. And that was something else, unlike the other heroines in this series, Rose and Maya (especially Maya), Marina felt extremely and painfully naive and young to me. This is a girl who's not yet 18, and who, though mature for her age, still isn't quite an adult. This was especially uncomfortable to read when it came to the romance subplot (which I'm not going to go into here), though that long engagement thing in the epilogue was a nice touch.

Anyway, my enjoyment decreased for a while after that crucial scene, but once Marina starts catching on and realizing that things and people might not be exactly as her aunt and cousin want her to believe, I started liking the book again. And the final parts were great, especially the ending. I loved the way Lackey got around the whole "sleeping damsel in distress" angle that characterizes the Sleeping Beauty story, how she managed to manouver the situation so that Marina wasn't just sleeping and waiting to be rescued, but participated decisively in her own rescue.

Let's see, what else? Oh, another negative, I'm afraid. I mentioned in The Serpent's Shadow that something that annoyed me was the lack of real motivation for the villain's evildoing. Well, here it was even worse. At least Shivani (from TS'sS) wanted to get Maya's magic, but why was Arachne so bound and determined to destroy Marina, even when she was a baby? Why was she so determined that she would live the next almost 18 years of her life basically laying in wait, making plans for when she would get Marina in her clutches? We know that if she doesn't, the curse will rebound on her, but she doesn't know that! And the bloody, macabre nature of her evil was a bit much. Yes, perfectly fitting to the fairy tale theme (we all know most of those were pretty bloodthirsty before they were bowdlerized to make them fit for kids), but it made me ill at some points.

So, book #1, The Fire Rose: A-; book #2, The Serpent's Shadow: B+; book #3, The Gates of Sleep: B. This series seems to be going down a downward slope. A shallow one, granted, since we're still at a solid B on book 3, but still going down. Here's hoping we've reached the valley and that Phoenix and Ashes is the start of a climb back up!


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