I haven’t really done reviews in the past – my editor brain gets in the way and it ends up being more a report than something useful to readers – but I couldn’t resist this one. Not only am I super excited to see a good friend succeed, but The Bards of Birchtree Hall was also an absolute pleasure to read. And if I can fit it in, I’m hoping to start doing some more a bit more regularly as well.
As a quick disclaimer, I am a judge for Aurealis this year in one of the categories that The Bards of Birchtree Hall has been submitted. This review is my personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of any judging panel, the judging coordinators, or the Aurealis Awards management team. Plus, I review differnt to how I judge anyway. Different processes for different outcomes.
But onto the book!
Neala and her mother, Dana, have left a dead farm and dead father/husband behind in Australia to start a new life in the land of Dana’s childhood – Ireland. As soon as they arrive, Neala starts getting weird dreams and visions of music and horses seem to haunt her – but its just the jetlag, right? The stress of it all?
When she’s encouraged to apply for Birchtree, a musical academy so prestigious Neala can barely even find any information about it, all the secrets start to come out. Her new friends tell her of the magic of Bards, and Dana confesses she deliberately kept all knowledge of the magic from Neala, along with the significance of Neala’s birthmark.
Despite her anger at being kept in the dark, an attempt of her life, an unbelievable rescue, and the encouragement of her friends convinces Neala to accept her place at Birchtree. Once there, more questions seem to come than answers. Semi-sentient plants, a little black fox that seem to defy all laws of magic, and Bards disappearing, only to reappear again shortly after, create questions of their own. Even with her friend, Áine’s, strange headaches an old woman entering her dreams, they all seem little more than distractions, although almost overwhelming one, or maybe precursors to something else.*
Something big is coming. Something bigger than the oddities Neala is experiencing, that threatens to break centuries-old protective barriers. And the birthmark, the fox, and the disappearances; they all seem to connect to it. As Neala gets deeper into the world of the Bards, book one of the Stormbringer Chronicles sets up an epic tale of clashing worlds to come, and I am all in for the sequels!
* Oh, and there are boys, which from what I’ve been told are distracting enough, but as anyone who knows me will know, that is not my field of expertise. So, I’m assuming its been done well, and moving on.
Okay, so onto the review bit. First and foremost, It’s a great story, and well told. It is a debut, and some technical aspects of the writing will be ironed out with time (sorry, couldn’t shut down the editor brain entirely), but overall it’s a fantastic entry in to the YA Fantasy world that I thoroughly enjoyed.
For anyone who’s lived in regional Australia, you’ll be able to see Amanda’s lived experience really shines in Neala. All the main characters really get the ‘genuine’ treatment, and I’m a sucker for multi-dimensional characters. Nanna is a blast, as are Torin, Áine, and Finlay. The magic system is quite unique, blending a number of systems to give believably unique skills to each character while giving each a basis from which to work. With Neala as new to this as we the reader are, that author does a great job of giving us a system that can be complex, without diving straight into complexities that confuse.
As far as the plot goes, it really is setting up for something greater. There is a great YA story of a young girl being separated from her parents in one of the harshest ways at the start, and in an entirely foreign way when she attends Birchtree, but where that story ends, the (no spoilers) cliffhanger final chapter successfully achieves the difficult task of closing one story, while simultaneously using the threads from throughout the novel to build a far greater – and more disturbing – mystery.
As an avid fantasy fan, I really enjoyed the world, the magic, and the way all the threads pulled together. Its an immersive, engaging read. I’m very appreciative of getting an early copy for review, and looking forward to the Book 2 come July 2021!
Four out of five Tree-Stars, and check out Amanda’s artwork (multi-talented!) below