This (The Beholder, Anna Bright) is not a book I would have ever picked up, but I got it in a book crate and felt I ought to give it a go. It’s…. well, it’s not very exciting, and there isn’t a ton to talk about. I don’t hate it or have much to dislike, and generally enjoyed reading it, but it’s also not very engaging (or plot focused). The world building is a wonderful idea, but the execution is at times head scratching.
In this alternate history world, every country but England is named something else. The timeline seemingly diverged around 1700, where America didn’t rebel against England and instead was abandoned… maybe. It’s unclear- for example, the capital of Norway (Norge in this book) is named Asgard… which has never been the case IRL. Similarly, it’s in a giant tree- again, entirely fantastical.
Anyways, our main character Selah is the Senechal-elect of the country of the Potomac (a river around Maryland, USA). When she fails to find a husband in her country, her evil stepmother sends her across the Atlantic on the titular The Beholder in order to court several pre-arranged matches. This book covers the first two, in England and Norge.
That’s roughly it. This is a new book, and there’s not much plot to discuss, but I’ll avoid a full breakdown. Basically, she spends two weeks in England and falls in love, and then spends two weeks in Norge and falls in love. She does vaguely have another love interest, in the ship’s captain Lang, but seemingly finds true conclusive love by the end of the book.
In the background, entirely out of her country and reference, Selah’s crew is up to suspicious activities, and there’s an evil eastern empire which is constantly invading countries.
So, the thing that is unique about this book is every character is inspired or based on fairy-tale/mythological/legendary figures. This isn’t something that is ‘once upon a time’ style part of the universe (there’s no magic) or at all referenced. Seemingly in this world fairy-tales do exist, but not the ones that are the bases for the characters. This has befuddling implications, honestly, especially since the Norway section of the book is based on Norse mythology- meaning Norse myth never existed in this world.
Linking characters to their informing stories is fairly interesting, but at times it is hard to see the parallel. For example, Selah is very much Cinderella (evil stepmother, loses a shoe, caring godmother, cries at her mother’s tree-grave). Arthur is… named Arthur, but appears to have no connection to Arthurian myth. Everyone on the ship appears to be named after fairy tale authors, which is clever- Grimm, Perrault, Anderson, Lang, Basile, Yasomuro. For unclear reasons, this trend is broken for three of them: Skop, Jeanne, and Vishnu. Jeanne is Jean d’arc and a very minor role, and Vishnu is… a Hindi god? Skop appears to have no mythological basis.
This pattern break is bizarre and unsettling. It would have been easy to just name the background sailors after authors, to fit the theme. There’s plenty of folk/fairy tale authors out there, and if you wanted to reference Jeanne you have plenty of people to give that name to.
The naming thing is in theory a very fun idea. I’m not super versed on all the stories that come up in this book, but I like stories on stories, and the concept of a world where everyone is living out some fairytale aspect. The England section is the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I didn’t figure out until googling it proper- not the same story, but a parallel in a new, twisty sort of way. For the life of me I can’t figure what Norse myth the Norge part is based on, and I don’t think it IS beyond the fact Torden is Thor, and his siblings are Thor’s siblings (I could only nail down Loki in that bunch).
One confusing aspect on reflection is that only some characters are directly named after their counterparts. Anasi is Anasi, cool. Why is Freya named Anya? Why are Bragi and Hermodr here as sons and Heimdall is like, an uncle? Why is Loki named Aleksei? Why is Frigg Rhitta?
These are very inconsistent naming choices. One of the best examples is that of Torden. This is a kinda dumb sounding name, but it is Norwegian for ‘lightning’, which fits the fact he’s Thor. Aleksei has no bearing on the fact he is actually Loki. Selah sounds like ‘cinderella’ said fast, but that’s again a different way to reach the name connection from other characters.
So, the parallels are neat in concept, but half and half on execution, often a bit sloppy or else entirely pointless.
World 2: What year is this?
Since last time I just spoke about the whole fairytale thing, I wanted another section for the other half of the world building. You know, the alternate history?
It’s quite hard to tell what is going on in this not-fantasy world. At first I was confused to learn this was set in the ‘real world’ at all, since political relations and countries are entirely different. There’s so many complicated ramifications of the timeline in this book which are not explored, nor do I really want to think about them. I cannot tell you with any hope what year this book takes place in. 1800s? Culture in England is victorian, but has medival traditions such as joust and melees. Norge is very much ancient era and very traditional. Then, in the most bizarre and confusing plot point, Selah finds a radio. A radio! That was invented in around 1900, and Selah’s can transmit trans-atlantic, an even further technological advancement. There’s no electricity in this world- well, wide spread or at all in use- yet some radio transmitting towers. And a radio which operates on a battery.
Historical setting wise too there isn’t racism in this world. So… did America not becoming a country prevent racism from happening…? I mean, good for them, and it’d be really awkward if this book tried to tackle race relations, but set in an alt history 1900, it is odd to see a very diverse array of people of color, from across the globe, who are seen as 100% equal. We really solved international racism real fast in this timeline. Similarly, sexism is mostly gone: noble women seem to have arranged marriages, like Selah, but women are allowed to be sailors and participate in jousts/melees alongside men.
God, America never should have happened if social relations get this good that fast!
Again, good for them, I don’t like reading about racism/sexism in my YA romance fantasy-ish books, but it felt weird for something that is in theory historical.
Well, hm. We have 2-3 love interests, and Selah falls deeply in love with both the guys she knows for two weeks. It’s not really insta-love, but it’s very quick for her to feel so strongly about two dudes. She has about a week or two between them (and falls out of love with dude #1 by then), but she then rebounds to dude #2 without much baggage.
Our love interests are Bear (Arthur) and Torden (Thor). I like Bear more, really, but they’re honestly very similar. They’re both nice, very attractive dudes who Selah instantly gets along with and likes, falls in love with, and then is separated from. Neither have any real highs or lows- I guess Bear is more ‘unexpected/daring’ and Torden is more ‘steady/slow-moving’. They’re fine. By the end Selah is 100% in true love with Torden, and I’m not really sure if My Man Bear is going to have a chance for romantic redemption in the second half of the duology.
Oh, and for some reason Selah has another love interest… kind of. Captain Lang and her have some weird moments. He seems way more adult than her, but is in theory one or two years older at most. They kind of hold hands and blush, but it goes nowhere, and is more strange considering Selah’s other two boyfriends.
I was generally entertained by this book and had a fine enough time, but it’s slow moving and very little conflict or action happens in it.
The book title has no relation to the story, which is odd: the boat Selah travels on is called The Beholder, and the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is present at one point, but all the love interests are charming/hot, and there isn’t an unattractive person to be found here. So what does the title really mean? Not to trust appearances? There’s an instance of deceit here, but it’s obvious to the audience right away (I spoiled it: Bear is Arthur), and while England is a third of the book, it doesn’t matter that much to the story.
The writing overall is not bad, but not exciting either. In the beginning there’s a lot of stinger lines and not-cliffhanger chapter endings. There’s also a lot of cases where lines are repeated in internal monologue in italics, a style which is very ‘in’ in YA right now, and I don’t like it. You see that a LOT in cruel prince and grishverse books.
Selah as a lead is both at points charming and difficult. She’s not particularly bright, and very rash. She has almost no agency in the story and does not actively do anything. The most active she gets is when she intervenes in a Thor Family Argument, where Not-Odin is telling Not-Freya to hooking up with Whoever-Skop-Is. To Odin, Freya is a woman to marry off as his only daughter, so she can’t just fall in love with random dudes. Selah defends her right to be a person and not property, and Freya runs away at the end of the book to join the boat crew.
You’ll note, ironically, Selah is someone who is currently being used as property, and she doesn’t super seem to mind. She’s not pleased she has to have a husband to return home, but she has no big efforts to change or resist that. So her snapping about Freya’s right to find real love is funny when Selah is out here having arranged love.
At times Selah was charming. She’s a bit naive and her voice reflects that, and I like that in a character. In YA these days you don’t see a lot of woman leads who AREN’T angry murder-happy all-powerful woke icons who lead armies. Selah is just a simple girl who knows she doesn’t have a lot of power, and vows to keep surviving and keeping a step ahead of her enemies. I like the switch of pace there, I just wish Selah was more active in doing anything, or actually ‘outwitting’ her enemies.