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While not well-versed in the tropes of the post-millennial YA renaissance, I do love me a plucky heroine, and PA makes it clear right in the pithy-perfect title that, oh yes, there will be pluck. And, as an added bonus, romance and magic--the other two legs of the stool that pretty much all transcendent storytelling has rested on since--well, since the days of Arthur.
Not to mention that PA herself manages to pluck (yes, that is while they call it plucky) such a timeworn tale from the depths of an ancient well I had long given up for dry in the recent craze of twice-tellings. Given that the YA authors have already scattered from the cornucopia to the mediocre security of the fringes like so many Hunger Games tributes, the fact that Ardis comes back to claim the very center of the arena can only mean that she's either crazy, or that she knows Her Aim Is True. Fortunately for us, it's the latter.
Now where was I? Ah yes: pluck, romance, and magic. These being the essential ingredients (and I being an obsessive reductionist engineer), I'll review them each in turn. The pluck, of course, belongs to our protagonist Ryan DuLac, who, far from channeling Guinevere, is a feminized fusion of Lancelot and Arthur. Clearly an acolyte of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, PA effortlessly transports the reader into DuLac's shoes as they dance down the peril-laden path of Heroinism. 5 stars.
As for romance, yes, we've got the standard-issue YA love triangle here, but the true test of skill is whether you can get the readers to fall for the new love after they've already fallen for the old. Not only does PA accomplish this, she does it so slyly you don't even notice until it's too late. I only regret that the inevitable showdown had to wait for the second book. 4 stars.
And lastly, magic. Obviously if you're going to put the word Merlin in the title you're making a promise to deliver the goods, ya know? (And, of course, you have to get out from under the shadow of ol' HP.) Ardis employs a light spellbook, as it were, and those craving Martin-, Jordan-, or Tolkien-esque levels of mythology (read: 12 year old boys) must quench their thirst elsewhere. In the cuisine of YA romance, magic is served as a sauce, not a main dish. You want the flavorful spells to complement and enrich the meat of the story, rather than smother it in pyrotechnic arcana. At least, you do when you have a juicy hunk of antihero like Vane at the center--but now I've said too much. 4 stars.
So, does this all add up to something that gives you that unmistakable feeling of reader's afterglow? Well, as is the fashion these days, PA is going to leave us on the edge of a cliff, and therefore so must I. But don't worry about me, Priya--I was raised on Wheel of Time, so I know a thing or two about patience.