Trial by Fire | Worldwalker #1 | ISBN 9781509809875 | MacMillan Children’s Books, 2014 | 2.5 out of 5 Points
“This world is trying to kill Lily Proctor. Her life-threatening allergies keep her from enjoying experiences that others in her hometown of Salem take for granted, which is why she is determined to enjoy her first high school party with her best friend and longtime crush, Tristan. But after a humiliating incident in front of half her graduating class, Lily wishes she could just disappear.
Suddenly, Lily is in a different Salem—one overrun with horrifying creatures and ruled by powerful women called Crucibles. Strongest and cruelest of them all is Lillian . . . Lily’s other self in this alternate universe. What makes Lily weak at home is what makes her extraordinary in New Salem. In this confusing world, Lily is torn between responsibilities she can’t hope to shoulder alone and a love she never expected.”
I’ll be honest, the only reason I picked up „Trial by Fire“ was the Salem setting. I’m a major fan of everything witchy so if a book is about witches there’s a good chance I’ll read it, no matter who it’s by or what it’s really about. I was cautious about “Trial by Fire” though because I didn’t like Angelini’s “Starcrossed” at all but “Trial by Fire” just sounded too good to pass up: Parallel universes, witches, Salem… awesome! Well, in theory at least. It wasn’t really awesome in practice. Don’t get me wrong, “Trial by Fire” isn’t a bad book. But it’s not a good book either. It’s actually just a book and it’s all over the place.
SHE’S SO UGLY IT MAKES HER PRETTY
I liked Lily Proctor, the protagonist, well enough. I didn’t like how she was described though. The book is told in third person and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the narrator were leering at Lily whenever they described her. It was actually super ridiculous. Angelini wants you to believe Lily is ugly and gross but at the same time she describes her as conventionally beautiful. Lily is too thin, you guys! Her hair is too red and too curly! Her skin is too pale! But at least she has a pretty face! It’s laughable. I’m not an idiot, Angelini, so don’t take me for one. Lily is a skinny white ginger girl with long curly hair and she’s gorgeous. She’s basically described like this. Hey, I’m all for plain or even unattractive YA heroines but if you’re going down that road, do it properly. Don’t tell me she’s totes ugly and then describe her as this conventionally attractive princess all the guys are bending over backwards to date.
What saved Lily’s character for me was that she wasn’t perfect. Quite the contrary. Lily has serious health issues that limit her and make life hard for her. She is hyper-allergic to a lot of things, she can’t use normal make-up or beauty products for instance, she can’t eat a lot of things, her family can’t even use normal store-bought cleaning supplies because they make Lily react badly. I have a friend with a similar condition (albeit my friend’s health issues aren’t as bad as Lily’s of course since Lily is a book character and her issues are muchly exaggerated) and I thought Lily’s health issues and the way she deals with them were portrayed quite authentically. Lily realises she won’t be able to go to school for much longer and might not even be able to leave the house soon and her bitter acceptance of her condition seemed very real and sincere to me.
That’s why I totally bought a YA trope here that I usually roll my eyes at. Lily’s sickness alienates her from most of her classmates and she has only one real friend, Tristan, who she is also in love with. When Tristan betrays her, Lily feels like she has nothing left in her life to look forward to. I usually hate this trope: Girl gets dumped by boy, thinks her life is over. Boo. But I believed it this time around. Lily isn’t only losing the boy she likes, she’s losing her only friend. Her family is in shambles and she doesn’t have a bright future to look forward to either, she might not even be able to graduate high school. So when Lily gets the chance to leave it all behind and start over in a parallel universe, I understood her decision to take the offer. This worked for me. In fact, the whole book worked for me up until the point Lily gets swept into the alternative Salem. So for the first 15% or so “Trial by Fire” was awesome. And then it lost me.
SCIENCE AND WITCHES DON’T GO TOGETHER
The world building is atrocious. The alternative Salem Lily gets transported to is just plain bad world building. And seeing how this book is basically an epic fantasy that depends highly on the world it is set in it ruined the novel for me. New Salem is a somewhat medieval world: They have castles and medieval clothes, the whole shebang. At the same time its technology is pretty advanced though. New Salem is a metropolis with giant skyscrapers that for some reason or other are overgrown with vegetation. And to add insult to injury there are also some typical New England colonial houses thrown into the mix. Oh, and they have street cafés? I don’t even know. What the ever loving eff is this world? This parallel universe does not make any sense.
Of course the first rule of world building is “Anything goes” but when you’re creating a world from scratch it has to fucking make sense. New Salem doesn’t make sense. It reads like Angelini just tossed everything she thought was cool into a pot, gave it a good stir and poured the mixture all over present day Salem. That’s not how you do world building. Just saying. I had so many questions, really. How did this world become the way it is?, was pretty much top of my list. Medieval clothes and mindsets just don’t mix with cafés and skyscrapers at all and I wasn’t offered any explanation for why these things came to co-exist. This world reads half-baked and I had trouble picturing it too since there was such a crass contrast between massive skyscrapers, cafés and stuff and the huge citadel that apparently protects the city. It was just too weird. I loved the idea with the parallel universes but the actual parallel universe Lily gets swept to was a major letdown.
There’s some court intrigue going down at Lillian’s castle that was fun to read but overall it didn’t grab me quite as much as I thought it would which is all to do with the shoddy world building. All of the conflicts, all of Lillian’s enemies and alliances and schemes didn’t really work for me because I wasn’t told how all of this even came to be and why it was so important to keep it that way. The whole plot just came apart the further I read. The world made less and less sense and I found myself internally yelling why at top volume.
I liked the idea behind this book: In alternate Salem witches hunt down scientists instead of the other way around. Cool idea actually but blandly executed. I don’t understand why Lillian transported Lily to New Salem to this very day either. Maybe I just didn’t care enough to understand, maybe it didn’t make sense for the witch of Salem to transport her science savvy alter-ego to her world to protect witchcraft from scientists. It will remain a mystery.
I didn’t care for the characters in alternate Salem either. Juliet, Lily’s sister, was an interesting character in Lily’s Salem. She was caring but a bit too overwhelming, smothering Lily. Alternate Juliet was bland. I didn’t get much from her and that goes for alternate Tristan too. The only character in alternate Salem I thought was amazing was Lily’s own alter-ego, Lillian, the Lady of Salem. She was deliciously evil and a great contrast to Lily, even though they were basically the same person. It was a shame that her actions didn’t make a lot of sense to me though and I didn’t really get her reasons for being evil and unlikable either. She just was. Nevertheless she was an interesting character from start to finish and one of my highlights of “Trial by Fire”.
Also can we talk about how Angelini introduced a gay character just to kill him off a few pages later? Like, no! Gross. That’s not representation, that’s just mean. I just don’t get why authors do this? What’s the thought process here? “Readers want more LGBTQ representation so I’ll give them a gay couple but I don’t really want to write about them, so I’ll kill one of them off and ignore the other’s queerness for the rest of the book, problem solved!” Nah, problem not solved. In fact, highly problematic. Is it so hard to not kill your LGBTQ characters if you only have two of them but a dozen straight characters? Is it so hard to not make LGBTQ teens feel like they’re disposable and only ever the victims of violence and tragedy? Like, come the fuck on.
WITCHES? WHAT WITCHES?
Last but not least I’d like to talk about the Salem setting a bit because I feel like a lot of potential was missed here. 80% of the book take place in alternate Salem so of course our real Salem doesn’t get a lot of page time but even so it was missing something. Maybe I brought too many premonitions to this book or maybe I shouldn’t have listened to the audio book of Adriana Mather’s “How to Hang a Witch” at the same time but the setting was lacking, not just because the alternate Salem was badly done and all over the place but also because I thought the actual history of the witch trials should have been explored more. Not every book set in or around Salem has to incorporate the witch trials of course but “Trial by Fire” is about witches and it’s about Salem and it felt weird to me that the trials were a bit of a non-issue.
Apparently the citadel of New Salem was built after the witch trials and Lillian is hunting down and hanging scientists like the people of Salem hunted down and hanged witches in 1692 but that’s about all there is and it’s just weird. Lily’s last name is Proctor after all but her possible ancestry and Elizabeth Proctor aren’t even mentioned. The book is about witches but the trials are only dealt with in passing.
I’m aware that this is a very personal and subjective issue but I didn’t like this. You can write a book set in Salem without mentioning witches (even though it’s going to be hard since Salem has built its whole tourist industry around the witches) but you can’t really write a book about witches set in Salem without mentioning or exploring the history of the actual witches and witch trials. I mean, you can. Angelini did. But it’s off, especially given Lily’s last name and Lillian’s scientist hunt being based on the trials. Is this just me or is that really weird and non-committed?
There was also way too much focus on the romance. “Trial by Fire” has a classic love triangle between Lily and alternate Tristan and Rowan, another boy from alternate Salem. I don’t mind love triangles but if both love interests are shitty I do. And both Tristan and Rowan were pretty shitty. I didn’t care for them at all and I was hoping for Lily to kick them both in the teeth and move on to a nice boy but of course that didn’t happen. Like, get this: Lily has just been cheated on by her boyfriend Tristan in her world, comes to New Salem and instantly falls for two total tossers again. You do you, Lily, but why does this have to take up like 60% of the book?
“Trial by Fire” wants to be different from your usual paranormal YA quite obviously. It wants to explore the way magic and science work together (or don’t work together) and it wants to offer an interesting unusual Fantasy world, epic fights between good and evil and an unlikely heroine. It doesn’t though. There just isn’t enough backstory for New Salem, the magic and Lillian’s hatred of scientists to make the book work. What’s left is a badly built parallel universe in which Salem is a metropolis ruled over by an evil witch and lots and lots of romance. I did like Angelini’s writing though and I liked Lily and Lillian and the contrast between the two. Overall “Trial by Fire” was a bit dull and dry at times, lacked substance and world building and just didn’t really convince me.
I’m giving “Trial by Fire” 2.5 points. One for the beautiful writing that kept me interested, half a point for the unusual plot that I really liked even though the execution didn’t really work for me and one for Lily and Lillian and their awesome conflict of being very different versions of the same person. I’m taking 2.5 points away as well for the book being seriously dull, the plot and world building not making a lot of sense and for killing the token Gay Guy because that’s gross. “Trial by Fire” was an okay read. There was a lot that bothered me but I also liked enough things to make it worthwhile. I don’t regret reading it but I think I’ll pass on the rest of the trilogy.
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