Laura Williams McCaffrey, Alia Waking (Clarion Books, 2003)

One could describe this children’s fantasy to make it sound like many others: a Talented girl in a magical land sets out to become a woman warrior so she can fight for her people. But that summary, though factually correct, is quite misleading. Alia Waking is actually a reversal of that particular fantasy staple, and both its virtues and its flaws stem from that.

Alia is a twelve-year-old girl in a medieval-ish fantasy land. Her people, the Trantians, are at war with the Beechians. Alia, like most of the other village girls, wants to join the keentens, a sisterhood of woman warriors. The girls engage in fights and mock skirmishes in the hope of impressing the keentens with their strength and courage. But when Alia captures two Beechians -- a brother and sister of about her own age -- she is forced to face some difficult truths about the war, the keentens, and her own destiny.

The nature of the war and the social set-up which enables it is somewhat vague, as we see everything through Alia's eyes, and in addition to being twelve, she's not being much interested in politics. But it seems that a tyrant overlord is ruling with the assistance of minor tyrants -- officials called divins -- who are placed in each village to make sure everyone toes the line. The Beechians are rebelling against this system.

In other words, as an adult reader will pick up on by about page three, Alia's on the wrong side. And so are the keentens she's so eager to join. This makes not only the outcome of the story, but every step along the way, predictable to a sophisticated reader: Alia will learn the truth about the war, befriend the kids she captures, and find a special magical destiny which will not involve fighting.

A child reader would be more likely to make these discoveries with Alia rather than a hundred pages in advance, and that child would get more out of the book. While it's become a truism that a good book for children should be equally enjoyable for adults, I don't think that's necessarily the case. Alia Waking could be mind-blowing for a child who's read a lot of fantasy of a more traditional sort and expects the protagonist to be on the right side and get her heart's desire, not change her mind about what it is.

Reading the book as an adult, I find it cleanly written and thoughtful. The characters are realistic and unstereotypical, and the scale is refreshingly small. But those virtues, while praiseworthy, are of the type that one appreciates on an intellectual level. Once I realized where its reversals of genre expectations were going, the predictability robbed it of excitement. And while neither prose nor plot nor characterization are flawed in any obvious way, neither are they quirky or startling or powerfully emotional. The landscape and names are believable, but generic.

Alia is likable and unromanticized but too much of an Everygirl, and her tree-related magic would have seemed more rooted in her character had she been shown to be deeply attached to the rhythms of the forest before it manifested.

I can't wholeheartedly recommend the book to adults unless they happen to be hungry for a very quiet fantasy with absolutely nothing stupid or embarrassing or over-the-top. It's not only too predictable, but too obviously good for you -- too much whole milk and not enough coffee. But a child between the ages of nine and twelve might well find it surprising and thought-provoking. Alia Waking could be a great gift for your little niece who loves Harry Potter. But if she's a teenager, she'd probably prefer the latest book by Tamora Pierce.

[Rachel Manija Brown]