Fanfiction isn’t always bad, and the authors aren’t always terrible. Sometimes, they’re better than the source material deserves. On occasion, one will rise above the masses of fanfic stories to write original work that is worthy of being put on the shelf with the best of them. Lissa Bryan is such an author. She began writing Twilight fanfiction, which gave her writing career its jump start. Before I go on to talk about Under These Restless Skies, I just want to mention one thing that really amped my respect for this writer. In her blog, she talks about why she will never pull to publish Written in the Stars, a Twilight fanfic that I’ve read more than once.
The fact that she thinks it’s her best work and yet won’t cheapen it by capitalizing on its success takes a certain work ethic that I find admirable. To paraphrase the author, she’s written it as a fanfiction, that’s where it belongs, and that’s where it will remain.
Now, on to her latest novel, Under These Restless Skies. This is a historical fiction novel set in the court of Henry VIII in 16th century England during his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Having read one other novel by this author, I was expecting a carefully crafted book, and I was not disappointed. The research put into this work is extensive and detailed, yet the historical minutiae is woven within the fictional story of Will and Emma effortlessly, and the interplay between history and story is seamless. There are supernatural elements in this story—Emma is a selkie, a fae of the sea that can alternate between human and seal forms by wearing a pelt—but these bits of fantasy, while integral to the plot, don’t overshadow the relationships between Emma, Will, Anne, Henry VIII, and the members of court. They mesh together so well, in fact, that I found myself sitting back in my chair and thinking, It very well could have happened this way! It’s fantastical, yet not farfetched.
Will, the male protagonist, is a very well-developed character. He’s sent to London to be the King’s new fool, and his willingness to be honest with the King in a time where complimenting emperor’s clothes was par for the course earns him Henry’s respect. Will has a physical deformity, and though we never forget it because he struggles with its implications throughout the novel, this defect doesn’t define him. Will isn’t the only well-rounded character, of course, but it’s often hard to balance a character with defining features such as a distinct physical malformation without letting them become their disability. In this case, the author succeeded in not turning Will into a cliché.
I’m having a hard time finding something to criticize, and if I’m really reaching here, I’d say that at certain points, the narrative stuttered a bit in pace, dragging in places. However, this is easily overlooked, as these patches are few and short. When the action picks back up, the sluggish pace of those few pages is forgotten.
This story has something for everyone: well researched history, adventure, romance (not the cheesy porn without plot crap,) fantasy and supernatural elements, and a big mean asshole to round up the group. This is no spoiler—it’s common knowledge that Henry VIII was a huge prick. Just ask Anne Boleyn.
My recommendation: read it! You will not be disappointed. And if you are, well, then it’s probably you.