When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.
There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex'Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.
Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.
Can one girl - an accidental worldwalker - really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?
Sometimes I see books described as portal fantasy, and it just seems... insufficient. Not inaccurate, but in cases like this one, it's like trying to describe a beach by using adjectives that only apply to a couple of pebbles in the sand. An accident of stars is a lot more than a magic wardrobe.
My mind kept jumping to Kameron Hurley's Mirror Empire world, for quite obvious reasons: A certain amount of war gore, diverse cast in nonstandard social constellations, and, y'know, many worlds. The world of Kena is overall a slightly less harrowing place than what you'll get from a Hurley book, though. For now.
It all begins in Australia, which is already something like an alternate universe (to me, anyway - I live in the snowy and comparatively spiderless part of the world). Saffron is dealing with high school life and an annoying boys will be boys-response to the harassment she suffers. And then, out of nowhere, comes a foreign woman who wasn't supposed to get involved.
And Saffron most certainly wasn't supposed to follow the woman once she left.
Follow her into another world, in fact. Oops.
In this new and unknown world, Saffron's exposed to real and undeniable physical trauma, leaving a mark that'll follow her back to her own world - making it impossible to doubt or deny that it really happened. I like this a lot, because I always want the other-world to be a real thing, and not just maybe-probably-likely a daydream or metaphor for personal growth. Saffron gets to have a real experience, and that feels important, to me. To my mind, it moves the world of Kena far away from inevitable-comparison Narnia.
The storytelling is a little halting at times, but I hardly noticed it while reading, because the text successfully hooked me and had me well immersed. This is a paragraph I began writing out of a sort of "I know and acknowledge these complaints about the book"-mindset, and now I'm stopping myself, because, um, actually? I liked this story. That's all.
I hope it won't be a long wait for the next book.