In Shade & Sorceress, Catherine Egan presents us with Eliza Tok, a young protagonist who exhibits all the frailties of her twelve years. She embodies also the unshakable love that a daughter can have for the father who has raised her single-handedly, travelling from one place to another, running from something that she does not understand. Unbeknownst to her, Eliza is the daughter of the Shang Sorceress, who had preferred a Sorma man—one of a race of “nomadic desert people” (8)—to an arranged marriage intended to increase her offsprings’ magical powers. Eliza is thus “darker than the island children … with hair that would neither lie down flat nor curl nicely, but whose disorderly tendrils sprouted from her head in total defiance of both fashion and gravity” (9). The picture on the cover, too, shows a dark young girl, with tight dishevelled curls: a refreshing departure from covers in the past, often showing white models despite authors’ explicit descriptions.
The first page of Shade & Sorceress gave me pause, though: the author, I thought, must like Castle, or (better) be a Firefly aficionado. Our heroine, Eliza, and her best friend are daring each other to jump off a cliff into the ocean (always a good start: a protagonist with spirit), and Eliza comments that she “seriously doubt[s] that Nat Fillion really jumped off here” (1). I pictured Malcolm Reynolds in any of a number of adventurous scenes… But then Nat disappears from the book, and Eliza is taken from her home, and the story goes on…
Apart from this momentary jolt (which would have passed less obtrusively later in the narrative), the story moves quickly forward, introducing us to the Mancers, dragon-riding wizards from the Republic’s capitol. Eliza learns that she is special: heir to her sorceress mother’s magical powers. The problem is, Eliza herself has no magical powers. Taken away by the Mancers to live under their protection and study magic, Eliza is homesick and troubled. Her only friend is the son of a servant, Charlie, until her friend Nell is allowed to come for a visit. While Charlie, Eliza, and Nell get into mischief and become fast friends, the Mancers become more and more sure that Eliza has no magic. And they need her to have magic, for the Xia Sorceress—whom they had imprisoned years earlier—is somehow becoming more powerful.
Eliza does not seem to be a sorceress; Charlie is not actually a servant’s young son; the Mancers are not necessarily all benevolent: Eliza does not know who to trust, or who to turn to when her father is kidnapped and the Mancers refuse to help. Encouraged by Charlie—who by now they should know better than to trust—Eliza and Nell set off to rescue Eliza’s father.
Narrative expectations have conditioned us to anticipate in our protagonists a maturity above their actual years. Eliza’s decisions thus struck me as rather poor choices, until it was brought home to me that Eliza is only twelve years old: so of course finding her father is going to weigh more heavily in her considerations than rules she has been told but does not understand, or even her own safety. She is also more likely to trust a creature who has shown his friendship when no one else did, even if the adults have told her he is—well—not Charlie. Throughout their adventures, Eliza and Nell must rely on their own interpretations of the places and people around them. Those they think are their friends try to kill them; those who would seem to be enemies help them to escape… readers will be caught and tossed on waves of thought and emotion along with Eliza. There is only one constant in her mind: she must find and save her father, even if she dies in the attempt. In her struggles to stand up to those stronger and more magical than she, Eliza learns her limitations and begins to learn her powers as well. We are left in the end with her safe with her family: for now.