Mortal Danger is the first instalment in The Immortal Game trilogy by prolific speculative fiction author Ann Aguirre (author of the Dread Queen, Apparatus Infernum and Razorlands series among others). It is a compelling and intriguing introduction to a determined young heroine and a cracked mirror glimpse into an absolutely brilliant new fantasy world.
Edith – she’s the only one calls herself Edie – is a methodical, rational girl. She’s smart, she thinks that should count for more than it does. So when she heads out to take a walk in the river with rocks in her pocket, she knows that no-one is going to miss her enough to matter. Because she doesn’t matter.
Except that isn’t true, Edith matters very much to people who are able to make it worth her while to keep living. Their emissary, the weary, otherworldly Kian, promises her three favours – anything she wants – in return for…well, he’d rather leave that vague for now.
And Edith, rational, methodical Edith, wants revenge.
As a protagonist Edith – Edie, as she quickly reinvented the self she wanted to be – is refreshingly suspicious and wary in all the right places. Thrown through the looking glass into a beautiful, horrible and, above all, inhuman world, she didn’t surrender herself to it or deny it to the point of self-delusion. Instead she put her head down and tried to find out how the rules – because there had to be rules – of this new world work.
Mortal Danger also comes equipped with a fun cast of background characters – from the prettily malicious Nicole to the creepily good English teacher turned monster (or should that be English monster turned teacher?) Mr Love. I particularly liked Jen, who wrote Harry Potter fanfic and knew when to get the heck out of Dodge (or Blackbriar Academy in this case).
…Unfortunately, the cast also includes love interest Kian, who is Byronic, infatuated, expositionally invaluable and got a girl killed because she turned him down. Yeah, yeah – he didn’t want her dead, just humiliated, he was sad and she was mean and, oh, how he suffered. I just cringed from the ‘girls are so mean to turn boys down!’ aftertaste from it (worsened when he told Edie that:“The guys will think you’re a bitch if you turn them all down without giving them a reason.”
Kian is useful to the plot, and he’s the only one in Edie’s life who knows what is happening to her, so I can work with his existence. I just don’t like him, but I also hate Heathcliff as a character, so there’ s that.
It is the world that steals the show though. Under the skin of normality, like parasites, live the old things, the unnatural things. They used to be gods, they used to be worshipped but mankind set them aside and expected them to fade away. Instead they just keep playing their ineffable games with fate and lives and no end ever in sight. The old, cold Wedderburn, crackling and misting in his coating of ice, and the mad prophet imprisoned between…somewheres… tug at Edie’s strings to get her to dance her way to the future they want. Meanwhile the opposition – the Lightbringer and his shambling monsters of madness and isolation – do their best to shoulder-check her into obscurity (or death, they don’t really care).
It is a wild, clever mix of the chaos of old magic – with thin men and malign reflections – and the scientific order that the monsters stole from mankind’s future. Kian warns Edie early on not to call the fey, for they might come,
I love a lot about this book, unfortunately the bits I don’t love, I hate. Other than Kian – whom I dislike more the more I think about him – I could wish that Edie had asked for something more insidious and clever than ‘to be beautiful’. Since she was made her into an ‘idealised’ version of herself, maybe the message was meant to be that ‘everyone can be beautiful if they try!’? Instead, it came across more as ‘everyone must be beautiful’. Can’t have a young adult book with a protagonist who is average looking, right? Even Edie’s mother had to get a makeover so she would be pretty.
There’s also the fact that Edie’s bullies – some of whom she befriends, others of whom she feels sympathy for since they had reasons to act as they did – are basically psychopathic horrors. The details of the bullying aren’t exposed until later in the book, so I don’t want to give away details here. However, it involves drugs, humiliation and a YouTube video, and was horrible enough that Edie’s understanding is…kind of hard to buy.
I do likeMortal Danger, it has appealing characters and a mythos rich enough to give a writer lots of room to experiment. It’s just that the elements that jar with me are significant enough that I couldn’t put them out of my mind as I read. That said, I will read the sequel, Public Enemies.
As Aguirre signs off, Edie has used her three wishes, found the taste of revenge to be salty and bitter and made new friends. She is still ‘Property of the Game’ though, and if she is going to survive she has to find out the rules the monsters play by…not to mention whether her essay was good enough to get her into college.