Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White
|Book Name:||Illusions of Fate|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Ebook|
|Release Date:||September 9, 2014 (US) October 9, 2014 (UK)|
Illusions of Fate pleasantly surprised me with its depth. The blurb on the back suggests merely another “girl goes to court, girl feels like an outcast, girl meets boy, TRUE LOVE,” story, but instead I found a story that follows the same framework but focuses instead on a black woman’s struggle in a racist, white court that views women as ornaments.
Jessamin comes from the island of Melei, which is roughly analogous to one of the British Caribbean islands. She is the bastard daughter of a white scholar from Albion, the book’s England analog, and blackmails him into accepting her into Albion’s most prestigious university. There she earns perfect grades while working part-time to support herself and also battling the strong prejudice against people of color that pervades every aspect of Albion life.
When Jessamin meets Finn, a mysterious stranger who saves her from the unwanted advances of a man on the street her life becomes very strange. She finds herself going out to dinner with him almost against her will, and every time she thinks about leaving she gets distracted by his hair or his charm and…forgets.
At this point every single one of my red alert klaxons was blaring, I hated Finn, I was uncomfortable with the situation and the story, and I almost gave up. Oh boy, am I glad I didn’t! Not only does Jessamin recognize that Finn is using some kind of magical mind-control to keep her there against her will, she calls him out on it. Multiple times. Not once in the entire book does White suggest that this behavior is romantic. Jessamin is completely creeped out, particularly when Finn starts following her around, forbidding her to do things “for her own safety,” and buying her expensive, unsolicited gifts.
Finn behaves in ways that are often coded “romantic,” but are borderline abusive in reality. He never threatens Jessamin physically, but he starts trying to control her life, ignoring her own right to choose her destiny. Jessamin explains to him several times why she is not okay with this, and – wonder of wonders – he sort of gets it! He still messes up occasionally, but he tries to see her point of view and understand where she’s coming from, which is something I have rarely seen male love interests do in YA fiction.
White also provides something else often lacking in YA – a support system. Jessamin works at a hotel in the kitchens to pay for her books and lodging, and she has some wonderful friends there. Jacky Boy and Ma’ati are both from Melei and they give Jessamin a job, a place to stay, and a sense of home when she first arrives from her beloved island. Though lonely in Albion, Jessamin has them to speak her native language with and remember home.
Later in the story she also meets and befriends the winsome Eleanor, a delightful court gossip who ignores propriety and knows far more than she tells. She and Jessamin become fast friends, and their mutual support is a highlight of the book. Eleanor is also a wonderful character in her own right, with a brainless act that makes everyone overlook her while she manipulates the high and mighty from the background.
White does not shy away from discussions of colonialism either. Although not a major focus of the book, Jessamin has strong feelings about the takeover of Melei by Albion and she is not afraid to voice them. She’s bitter about the fact that her mother refused to let her speak her native language as a child, and angry at the ignorant Alben people who think they have somehow “saved” the natives of Melei. She repeatedly quotes death and illness statistics to prove that the colonial presence was actually detrimental to her people, but most refuse to listen to her.
One of my personal favorite moments of the story is when she reads her father’s book on Melei, which is offensive, racist, and wildly inaccurate. She has an epiphany and realizes that she does not have to try to fit in with the uptight and repressed people of Albion. She can choose her own identity, and she chooses Melei. It’s a minor part of the story but a major part of her character development, and I cheered along with her as she rejected Alben restrictions and became herself more fully than ever before.
Illusions of Fate presents characters in a fantasy situation dealing with many of the same societal expectations and assumptions that we deal with today. They make mistakes, but then they learn from their mistakes and actively work to become better people. Jessamin, accustomed to dealing with a world stacked against her because of the color of her skin is used to asserting her voice, her opinions, and her choices. She remains brave, idealistic, and determined throughout the entire book. While the writing style is perhaps not as polished as it could be, it is a solid book, with a wonderful message and a fun plot. The characters are fully realized and develop throughout the story, and there’s a sizzling romance that was far better than I expected. Illusions of Fate is a wonderful addition to my bookshelf. Suitable for ages 15 and up, younger if you’re a precocious reader.