The Kingdom of Septima is ruled in all but name by the Commune, a ruthless cult that seeks control of an ancient power that has taken root in unsuspecting children in Septima. To maintain their hold on the kingdom, the Commune will stop at nothing to capture children who show signs of this power, to be weaponised or eliminated.
18-year-old Evelyn Folksman is in hiding. Taken in by a tavern-owner, she is haunted by the horrific events that drove her from her home years before. Evelyn is forced to face her past when two wayward children, Raif and Rose Huntsman, arrive at the tavern, pursued by Commune soldiers. The children fall under Evelyn’s reluctant care as the trio narrowly escape a raid.
Relentlessly hunted by Commander Jonah Sulemon and Commune agent Lord Eirik Torrant, Evelyn and Raif cannot fathom why they pose such a threat to the Commune, until six-year-old Rose unwittingly reveals a terrible secret: she possesses powers more fearsome than any the Commune has unearthed in decades. There are only two options: to be captured and imprisoned, or to run for the rest of their lives.
So I’ll confess and start by saying that I read an ARC of this some time ago and have only just gotten around to writing this review. This is by no means a reflection of the quality of the book, and more of an apology for taking so long! Awakening is the first book in The Commune’s Curse trilogy and the debut novel of Lucy A. McLaren. And wow, what a strong debut this is!
Awakening is a dark Young Adult fantasy featuring both younger and older POV characters within the Kingdom of Septima. This kingdom is ruled by the Commune, a cult that amasses power for itself by taking in children who show magical abilities and effectively enslaving them or using them as soldiers. Those who stand against the Commune find their villages destroyed, making resistance all but impossible. The story, then, revolves around teenager Evelyn and the two young children who come under her charge. Haunted by the darkness of her past, Evelyn is doing what she can to survive in a world that rarely shows mercy. She makes it her duty to protect siblings Raif and Rose, who are dealing with their own trauma after watching their village burn down. The story goes through Evelyn and Raif’s point of view as they learn to trust and help each other on the road to survival – and to find the only resistance group that can help.
There are two other character POV’s in Awakening as well – Hector, a member of the resistance and an older gent with a pet cat he can telepathically communicate with, and Commander Sulemon, a member of the Commune who is hunting down Raif and Rose. Both of these bring a wider lens to the overall story of the Commune’s control of the kingdom, and honestly, I think they change the story from being a typical YA fantasy to something that’s more adult.
You see, I’m a big fan of YA fantasy books and have read a wide range of older and modern YA fantasy books, New Adult books, and crossovers that bridge the gap between teenage and adult readers. Having written my own YA fantasy stories, I know that it’s not just teens who are reading these books! YA fantasy can absolutely tackle dark themes, which Awakening does; there’s trauma, heartache, mental health issues, alcohol addiction, torture, authoritarian oppression – the whole dark fantasy gamut. But Commander Sulemon’s scenes can be especially dark as they deal with a toxic relationship, and unhealthy ways of dealing with that toxic relationship, which I think makes this story upper YA, if not crossing into adult territory. Adult fantasy can have younger POV characters (as is the case in Raif’s scenes). Evelyn herself thinks and acts like a teen, but wouldn’t be out of place in an adult fantasy novel, especially as she deals with her own trauma in unhealthy ways. Many women authors have their books aged down into being YA and here I am trying to age this one up! But that could just be my own biases talking. Awakening is a more mature YA story that doesn’t ‘feel’ YA as it focuses more on developing in-depth character relationships than fast-paced action. Quite often, some YA stories can feel quite shallow on the surface, whereas Awakening absolutely does not. All this to say that if you’re put off by the YA fantasy tag, then don’t be.
As a debut, Awakening is beautifully written with thoughtful world building, even if the world is mostly bleak. There are sparks of hope throughout, especially between the younger characters of Raif and Rose, who have a delightful and realistic sibling relationship. While I spent a whole paragraph describing this book as being adult (I’m sorry!), it’s quite clear to see that this story takes inspiration from some of my favourite YA fantasy series, especially His Dark Materials due to the animal companions. I’m always happy to see talking animal companions! While I mentioned the POV characters above, there are also letters between the antagonists which also add to the developing background story and world building that I enjoyed.
There is action here, as well as plenty of danger and peril, but it’s the quieter scenes where I think this story really shines. And though Awakening looks to be a classic tale of oppressed magical users taking on their authoritarian kingdom, the story develops at its own pace and ends with a twist that will surely open up the world within the sequels. I personally look forward to seeing where the series goes next.
Lastly, I simply MUST bring attention to the absolutely gorgeous cover art for Awakening. I’m a sucker for swords and plants and I guess now swords covered in plants? It’s a beautiful cover, and it’s not often we’re blessed with green covers either!
Awakening is a mature dark fantasy with heart that tackles difficult subjects in a thoughtful way. Lucy A. McLaren is an author to watch!