Okay, strictly speaking, this falls outside the parameters of this blog, since it is not from the 20th century. However, I’m making an exception in this case because I want to help promote an excellent book that deserves to be read.
Elves, castles, magic, kings and queens, swordplay, imaginary languages – yes, we’ve seen all this before, and Alyssa Marie Bethancourt’s debut novel, Mornnovin has them in droves. That is not to say these elements are automatically tired in any way. There’s a reason we keep revisiting them. But in the wrong hands, they can admittedly feel stale or even silly. Fortunately, Ms. Bethancourt knows her genre, and navigates the material with ease. The best fantasy will make you forget that it’s fantasy, allowing you to completely buy in to what you’re reading. Mornnovin is such a novel. Beyond this, however, and perhaps more importantly, it gives us a wholly fresh perspective in that the author is autistic, and her elven characters are also coded as such.
Bethancourt’s elves are emotional basket cases. Their feelings run the gamut, their internal lives raging storms of passion, guilt, and self-recrimination, yet they are expected to maintain a veneer of stoicism that would make Mr. Spock proud, even to the point of making elaborate hand gestures to indicate their feelings rather than allow a genuine emotion to reach their faces. These elves are no Vulcans, though, and their ability to maintain this cool facade is, shall we say, less well-perfected than their sci-fi counterparts. This is, in fact, an amazingly on-point depiction of the autistic experience. People on the spectrum spend most of their lives learning to hide what they’re really feeling, having been told over and over that their expressions of emotion are inappropriate. For this reason, autistics are often viewed as cold, rude, and distant. But this is largely learned behavior, the only reaction that makes any sense when it seems like everything you do is wrong.
That Bethancourt’s autism stand-ins are literally not human reflects the feeling many on the spectrum experience of not really being a part of humanity, of being aliens in their own world. This is further illustrated by the state of isolation in which the elves of Mornnovin have placed themselves. They live in Evlédíen, also called the Valley, hidden away from the rest of the world to protect themselves from the humans who once tried to exterminate them. The Purification, as the humans call it, could be viewed as a parallel for the erasure experienced by autistic people every day. Often, the lives and perspectives of the autistic community are ignored. The clueless and ignorant have even gone as far as to say that autistic people are not even really people, and that those on the spectrum actually have no inner life, no genuine feelings or sense of identity. What is this if not a low-key extermination, if not in fact, at least in spirit?
Onto this stage emerges our heroine, Loralianasa Raia, nicknamed Lorien. Though she’s over a hundred years old, she’s only just on the cusp of adulthood in elf terms. As the crown princess whose parents have long-since been murdered, she now faces the unwelcome responsibility of ruling her people. To make matters worse, this coincides with a global war among the humans as well as a sinister plot that soon drags the elves back onto the world stage. Lorien now faces the almost unthinkable decision to expose the existence of her people to the rest of the world in an effort to save the very people who once brought them to the brink of extinction. This funhouse lens coming-of-age story perfectly illustrates the exaggerated gravity that an autistic person faces upon joining the adult world. In much the same way that Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer used monsters as a metaphor for growing up and learning adult responsibility, so does Bethancourt use her fantasy landscape of imagined cultures in a global war engineered by a vengeful sorcerer.
Of course, no coming-of-age story would be complete without a romance, and Bethancourt does not fail to deliver the goods. The concept of lovers bound by a telepathic link has perhaps been done to death in numerous online fanfics, but this manages to feel fresh, perhaps because of the earnestness with which it is written. It might also have to do with how truly endearing the love interest is. Naoise (pronounced Nee-shuh) Raynesley is the prince of Grenlec, a kingdom at war with their longtime rival, Telrisht. We meet him in the first chapter and there’s instant sparkage with Lorien. He’s bright, kind, open-minded, thoughtful, and witty. Indeed, he borders on being a Mary Sue, though thankfully never quite crosses the line. By the end of their first encounter, Naoise and Lorien are mystically joined, and though separated afterward for a large chunk of the story, their love grows stronger and stronger through the psychic bond they don’t even know they share. Visiting each other in dreams, they become each other’s only solace from the hellscape their world has become – though Naoise arguably has it worse, being that he’s stuck on the front lines of a battle that seems frustratingly unwinnable for reasons that will eventually become ominously clear.
As the story unfolds, we’re introduced to a colorful cast of supporting characters as intriguing and memorable as anything offered up by J.K. Rowling, Marvel, or even Tolkien himself. There’s Lorien’s sister Lyn, who having been raised away from her people has never learned their stoicism and therefore expresses herself with some delightfully creative profanity. We’ve also got Naoise’s womanizing brother, who manages to be charming despite being a total heel; a mercenary named Cole who struggles to outlive his shady past; the brusque elf warrior Sovoqatsu questing to fulfill a sense of purpose; and Sefaro, a good-natured ambassador from a distant country who serves as the moral compass of the group. Aside from the main party, there’s Lorien’s taskmaster guardian, Tomanasil; Naoise’s overbearing father, King Lorn; and a mysterious fairy named Sun.
But the greatest gem, for me at least, is the villain, Kataki Kurome, a sorcerer grieving over the murder of his wife at the hands of the humans. He engineers the war between Grenlec and Telrisht as a way to thin the herd and lessen the task he’s set for himself of annihilating humanity. He easily could have been a thinly-written mustache twirler, but Bethancourt gives him depth, pain, and a cold civility that at once makes him relatable and utterly terrifying. His cold determination, detached sense of purpose, devious craftiness, and sheer power make him seem utterly unbeatable. This, coupled with his age and inflexibility make him the perfect foil for the young and idealistic Lorien, who was already overwhelmed by the adult world even before the shit hit the fan.
No character is ignored, and Bethancourt not only gives depth and individuality to all of her primary characters, but breathes life and personality into even the most minor characters. Such a task naturally requires a lot of breathing room, and Mornnovin is not a short book. But it never overstays its welcome, and indeed the epic scope of the proceedings demands the necessary space to unfold. Beyond that, the pace never wavers, and the novel’s bulk is never daunting. Quite the contrary. This is the kind of expertly-woven story that draws you right in and keeps you anticipating each new development. Mornnovin isn’t just one of the best fantasy stories I’ve ever read. It’s easily one of the best novels I’ve read in recent memory, and I eagerly await the next installment in the series, due out next year.
Mornnovin is printed by Dogwood House press and is available from all major online booksellers.
Full disclosure: I am married to the author. However, this is my honest assessment of the piece.