Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s NIGHT CALLS is about magic on the American frontier. As such, it’s both an alternate history and a fantasy. And as its protagonist is the young Alfreda Sorensson, it’s a story that’s meant for all ages.
So you’re to be pardoned if you think, “Well, Barb, come on! What’s so special about that? You’ve already reviewed Patricia C. Wrede’s THE FAR FRONTIER, haven’t you? Isn’t that the same thing?”
Well, yes and no. It is the same type of novel, for certain. But Ms. Kimbriel did it first, as the paperback edition of NIGHT CALLS first came out in 1996 . . . which means that if we’re about to have a showdown as to one-upmanship (really, do we need one?), Ms. Kimbriel would come out the winner even though both authors are well worth the reading.
But I digress.
More importantly than what specific type of novel NIGHT CALLS is — is it dark fantasy? Is it alternate history? Is it YA? Is it all of the above? (Yes, yes, yes, and yes . . . ) — you need to know one thing, and one thing only.
It was written by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel. So it’s extremely good.
The plot itself is compelling, mind you. Alfreda starts out at the tender age of eleven thinking she’s much like other girls, even though it’s clear from the start that she isn’t. She has a few friends, she loves to read, she loves her family, but a crisis that’s precipitated by a werewolf thrusts her magic into the picture far earlier than she would’ve liked. When her brother’s life is lost due to the werewolf, she wonders what good magic is — this mostly is subtextual, mind you, but it’s real and it’s there — which points out that no matter how much power you have, life is something that cannot be taken for granted.
This one thing helps to ground the novel from the start, and is a welcome change from many other contemporary dark fantasy novels. (Yes, Stephanie Meyer, I’m looking squarely at you.)
Alfreda’s adventures as she grows into her young womanhood — some quiet, some decidedly not — are excellent and rousing. She is not the type of young woman to sit on the sidelines and wait for men to do her work for her — no, she’s going to do for herself, thank you. And as she learns and grows, she also becomes more and more herself and happy to be so, which is why I found reading NIGHT CALLS to be both life-affirming and something that lifted my spirits no end.
Look. I know this sounds like I’m laying it on thick, but I’m not. Alfreda, for all her strengths — and she has many — is no one’s Mary Sue. While she’s exactly the type of young woman every parent would like to have, being resourceful and intelligent, she still has some weaknesses as she skews like a real person. And while she obviously has magic, she sees it as a responsibility, partly because she’s a farm girl at heart and is used to doing all sorts of chores.
So there’s the value of hard work. There’s the value of personal sacrifice. There’s the value of human dignity. There’s a good deal about religion and spirituality, discussed in a quiet, calm way that I found particularly appealing. And there’s a rousing action-adventure going on throughout that makes you forget about all of the above until the book is over and you start thinking about how wonderful it all was before you turn back to read it all over again.
Bottom line? NIGHT CALLS is excellent. Truly, truly excellent. It’s a can’t-miss novel with heart, style and wit that will please all ages. Guaranteed.
— reviewed by Barb