Review: The Twisted Realm novellas by Amy Sutphin
The Twisted Realm series by Amy Sutphin is a Wizarding World-style collection of novellas featuring imaginative monsters, delightful locations, and strong friendships. The first three books in the series—Twisting Every Way, Winding Every Higher, and Spiraling Beyond Oblivion—complete the initial story arc.
Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Twisting Every Way and the rest of the Twisted Realm stories. I encourage you to check it out!
Disclaimer: We received a copy of the first book from the author for the purpose of review. This in no way influences our opinions. (You can request a review here.)
This review contains spoilers.
Twisting Every Way Publisher Description:
When Emya’s village is invaded by two magic-wielding barbarians that proclaim themselves kings, the last thing she expects is to be taken in as their mage apprentice.
Emya understands little about magic, despite having known it all her life. She was told it would destroy everything she hated, then everything she loved, and then herself. Yet the kings alleviate her fears and show her potential she never imagined.
Her future was bright and formidable as the fire she twists in her fingers, except for the strange, sickly young man the kings hold captive. His presence is as a shadow, but Emya is determined to ignore him, choosing to believe in the kings’ extraordinary plans for her.
Yet, as a strange enchantment falls over the village Emya can’t help but wonder what the kings’ true intentions are.
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The series is labeled sword and sorcery, but it falls more closely within the concept of a “Wizarding World.” That is, the tropes and expectations of the magic school genre are present, but the story reaches beyond the scope of the school itself into the wider world.
The story begins in Twisting Every Way in the main character Emya’s home village. This is a rural area, where she is ostracized and abused for her magic. However, once the story shifts to other, happier locations, the settings really blossom with descriptions that give even the mundane a sense of wonder.
Emya receives magical instruction from the intimidating and ominous Kings who invade her village and forms strong bonds of friendship over the course of the story, first with Felix and later with others her age. These lend the story a magic school vibe, even though the citadel where mages learn and work is only introduced late in the first book in conversation.
Winding Ever Higher, which follows, takes place primarily in this citadel and follows Emya in her classes, friendships, and encounters with bullies.
The third book Spiraling Beyond Oblivion leaves the school for the larger world and the titular Twisted Realm, yet the new experiences and the magical research they undertake in libraries and laboratories maintain the element of learning from the previous books.
The Twisted Realm series stars a main character whose type is not typical for young adult fiction. Emya struggles with trust, and her childhood isolation from the rest of the village makes her socially awkward. She is not a girl who is popular despite her reservations, but instead connects with another girl Evris. Evris is outgoing and makes friends proactively, creating a circle that Emya can become familiar with at her own pace. A more unique trait for a female character, especially in recent fiction, Emya is not aggressive with or resentful towards others who treat her badly. She genuinely desires that they would leave her alone, not that they would get their comeuppance at her hand. She behaves like someone who is genuinely shy, but believably comfortable to be around, rather than an insufferable girl-boss.
The other characters are similarly well-realized, with consistent motivations and behaviors. Their interactions make the story engaging, even when monsters are not attacking them.
One detail that I appreciated about the story in general was that parents were portrayed well. The story begins with the funeral for Emya’s parents, but her relationship with them was a positive one. They protected her, and she dearly misses her mother.
Evris’s parents love one another and their children, and they welcome Emya into their home where she witnesses their dinnertime ritual of dancing together. Artyem, another friend, has a difficult past and his father remarried after his mother died, but his stepmother loves him very much and cares for him even after his father’s death.
It is always refreshing for teenage characters to have a good familial foundation, even if most of the story is about them muddling through things on their own.
The Twisted Realm novellas are filled with both inter-character tension as well as sword and sorcery action. The magic system itself is a bit generic in its parameters (can be felt inside you, is connected to emotion and intent, tied to lifeforce, has types, can use words of power, etc.), but I found the idea of wild magic and rotten magic were both good for infusing the tale with unpredictability.
There is plenty of tension in the story, besides friend and bully drama. The potential for danger comes from a variety of sources. Magic itself, while not quite as irredeemably destructive as Emya’s village believed, can still go wrong in unexpected and dramatic ways. There whole locations that are warped following magical events there, making them toxic to ordinary people. And Sutphin describes many original monsters, especially in the third book.
The Wisdom of Youth
One theme that I found particularly interesting was in Winding Ever Higher. It was a bit of an inversion of the usual magic school trope that the students know better than the teachers.
First, in class they are taught about a country that is antagonistic to magic and where mages are not allowed to go. The younger mages feel indignant that they should be forbidden to do something based on a backwards prejudice. Emya is the only one who wonders why the other students wish to impose on those who do not want them. (Brief aside unrelated to my current point, this scene makes a simple assertion about the right of a nation to govern itself. To have this statement stand even in the face of that culture’s “wrong think” is particularly strong and very welcome.)
Second, the younger students think that Emya resembles a radical mage who believed that magic was evil and tried to destroy the citadel. They believe that Emya presents a similar danger. Their response is to first spread rumors about her, then confront her alone in an attempt to intimidate her, and finally to force her somehow to reveal her “true nature.” They purposefully avoid telling the adults or even the older students because they know they will be stopped, and they believe they know better than their authority figures.
I appreciated this little twist on the trope, since I’ve always found that to be a weakness in the believability of magic school plots and characters.
These novellas were a lot of fun and their format made for easy reading—a bit like eating chips, one right after another without even realizing. Spiraling Beyond Oblivion concluded the “Companion” storyline and tells a fun story, but I felt that it was the weakest of the three.
The Companion itself is an intriguing magical artifact, but its conclusion didn’t quite land for me in the way that I was expecting. Emya as a character did not grow enough in the first two books to really step forward and direct the action of this adventure, which puts her in the awkward position of tagging along with Felix and waiting for him to figure out where they should go and what they should do next. Furthermore, it did feel a bit rushed, perhaps because there is a great deal that sets up conflicts to come as the series continues.
That being said, I was pleased to realize that the third book was not the end. I certainly look forward to reading more about Emya and her friends.
Check Out the Twisted Realm Series!
The Twisted Realm novellas deliver short and sweet magical adventures that make for great summer reading. I hope to see more stories like this from Amy Sutphin!
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