Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Something Wicked This Way Comes: Illuminate by Aimee Agresti

"Part two of the extravaganza!" cried Joan.

It was the anniversary of the day when I had been found and take to the hospital where Joan was the first to tend to me, to patch up my gashes.

I took the glittering box in my hands and shook it. "So I can open it?"

"You'd better!" said Joan.

I tore at the box and opened it. Its contents sparkled.

"I know you're not into jewelry, my precious little tomboy," she said. "But sixteen is a biggie and I thought you should have something pretty."

I pulled out a necklace, webbing its gold chain around my fingers. It's true, I didn't wear jewelry. But this one already felt different. It wasn't a heart or a dangling birthstone, or any of the typical things I was used to seeing on the girls at school. Instead, this pendant, almost heart-shaped, was something entirely new, a single gold wing, its texture softly rippled to give the illusion of feathers.

Under-the-radar, dorkish high school junior Haven is unbelieving when she and two classmates are selected from their school for a semester-long internship at the Lexington Hotel in downtown Chicago, just refurbished to its art deco Al Capone-age glory. The assembled cadre of young interns and assistants are an incredibly beautiful and aloof group of perfectly turned-out young men and women, presided over by the gorgeous and polished Aurelia, and Haven is bolstered only by the presence of the two other brainy honorees from her school, her best friend Dante, a flamboyant, would-be chef, and occasional classmate Lance, awkward and reserved.

But soon after the new interns are settled in the hotel for their semester, Haven senses something off-kilter in this scene of perfection. Among all the sophisticated and perfectly groomed interns, Aurelia is unusually focused on her and yet somehow off-puttingly manipulative, and when her incredibly handsome assistant Lucian begins to pay romantic attention to her, Haven finds it all hard to believe.

And then, setting up the hotel library, Lance finds a book with her name on the cover and gives it to her, and when she opens it, she finds the pages blank, except for a cryptic, handwritten message on the first page:

I trust you have found the pathway.

You will learn to break rules; your life depends on it. Trust in yourself. Trust in these words, and you will not falter.

Naturally, you will doubt this. Yours is an analytical mind. Take heart, winged one.

One last parting admonition, your necklace has deeper meaning. It defines you.

Haven tries to maintain her own integrity amid the seduction of the flattering attentions of Aurelia and Lucian and struggles to understand and carry out the difficult daily instructions of the mysterious book, orders which lead her into the secret passageways created by Capone's mob beneath the hotel, from which she is able to overhear the evil plans of her boss and the handsome Lucian. Haven is alone is her midnight excursions until she at last confides in Lance, who, it seems, is having parallel experiences, and like her, bears strange scars that warn him of something wicked in their solicitous supervisors. Together they piece together the terrible mission of their mentors--to win their very souls and make them one of them, the Metaphorsofi.

Then Haven opens that mysterious book one morning and finds a terrifying inscription waiting for her:

Haven, you will breathe your last mortal breath on May 27.

Aimee Agresti's forthcoming Illuminate: A Gilded Wings Novel, Book One (Harcourt, 2012) follows both a well-trodden path and forges into some new fantasy territory. For readers who cut their literary teeth on the Harry Potter series, the bare bones of the story will be familiar territory: a lonely young protagonist, a foundling with mysterious scars which burn when evil is near, a sudden and surprising emersion into another realm where the eternal struggle of good and evil is carried out on a grand scale, and a friendship that must stand its own trial by fire before the evil foe is temporarily vanquished--until the next book, that is. All of this is developed in a slow-building storyline in which Agresti ably fleshes out in the detailed setting of a refurbished luxury hotel with seemingly Stepford employees and a dance club with an actual "Ring of Fire" which, we discover, is fed by the eternal fires of the Inferno itself. Just as Harry and his companions grow into their good wizardly powers, so too Haven and Lance discover that they are "angels unaware" and that they must nurture their burgeoning strength even as they prepare for the apocalyptic conclusion of this book, Book One in a planned series.

Such novels, drawing from religious allegory, traditional fantasy, and metafictional realism, have become common, and though they are a genre that is not everyone's cup of, well, potion, they have their following in the many novels featuring vampires, werewolves, faery folk, and, as in this case, angels and devils (cf. even the venerated C. S. Lewis' and Madeline L'Engle's novels), now well represented among books for young adults. While Illuminate: A Gilded Wings Novel, Book One requires a mega-dose of that oft-cited "willing suspension of disbelief" to sustain credibility, Agresti creates plenty of action adventure and a trio of appealing characters which readers will want to revisit in subsequent sequels. As Kirkus Reviews says, "Smart, well-crafted and sophisticated; without a doubt, this belongs on the top of the stack of the current crop of angel books."

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