Lina Winterbock, the hero of Jaleigh Johnson’s new fantasy novel The Secrets of Solace, knows what it’s like to grow up in a university town. At best, it can be a nurturing, supportive environment. But it can also feel sedate, hermetic, or even boring. As an apprentice at the school of the archivists of Solace, Lina can’t help but wonder about the incredible secrets she knows are hidden in the calm halls of academia. It’s a feeling I get sometimes when walking around campus, or by the Blue Waters supercomputer facility. It’s both incredible and frustrating to think that there’s more knowledge stored here than I could learn in a dozen lifetimes.
Lina’s ivory tower does, perhaps, stretch a little higher than the ones at U of I. The archivists’ stronghold is protected by impenetrable mountains. In deep caverns, the archivists study the artifacts that fall from the sky of Solace encased in meteors. Johnson’s first book, The Mark of the Dragonfly, gave us a look at the “scrappers” who collect the meteors and fallen wreckage from other worlds from amid clouds of toxic dust. In this not-really-a-sequel, we follow the trail of those artifacts all the way to Lina, who wants to understand and master the strange devices.
Like Piper, protagonist of The Mark of the Dragonfly, Lina feels cooped up by the limits of her home. For her the archivists’ school is too much like a museum, with the artifacts curated and carefully put on display. She would rather take things apart to see how they work. She has strong, spunky personality, and it’s easy to see her gung-ho attitude in passages like:
Fumbling in her apron pocket, she removed a screwdriver and her small metal pry bar. These tools were among her particular favorites, and she usually carried them with her. Torque was the greatest thing in the world, as far as Lina was concerned.
Lina is drawn to the artifacts that show her other worlds, like a book that tells a different story to each reader, and a bracelet coated in magical fireflies that she uses to explore the caves deep below the archives. The world of Solace comes most vividly to life in the descriptions of these artifacts, when Lina takes us on a tour of the wonders of the archives. You get the feeling that Johnson could have written an entire museum catalog of Solace that would make for a fascinating read.
Lina uncovers secrets hidden beneath the archives, secrets that have been buried for a hundred years. To help in her search, she recruits a boy named Ozben, who is also look for a way to escape (though not, it turns out, for the same reasons as Lina). She eventually discovers something unprecedented: an airship, the Merlin, shaped like a massive bird of prey. In order to have a chance at the escape she’s been craving, Lina must uncover the Merlin‘s secret history.
Clearly, Johnson has a strong knack for magical devices and creatures. Much like the 401, the train that figuratively and literally propelled much of The Mark of the Dragonfly, the Merlin is a fascinating creation, at once both mechanical and emotionally poignant. By the end of the book I wished that Lina had more time to explore its mysteries. Solace has a well-populated feel, full of creatures living side by side with the archivists like chamelins, shape-changing dragonoids. Or carnelian fire-cats, a particularly dangerous creature, one of which brings about the book’s most lively and inventive action sequence.
Eventually, the war between the two nations of Solace intrudes on the peaceful enclave of the archivists, threatening Lina’s quest. As more of the action started to be driven by this war, hinging on characters who appear in the book barely or not at all, I felt like the book started to lose a little of its focus. The reliance on distant events makes some of the crises feel a bit arbitrary, blunting some of the effects of the climax. The ending was one place where I felt like having read The Mark of the Dragonfly beforehand was an important asset, giving me useful insights into the background of Solace. Otherwise, it wasn’t at all necessary to have read that first book to understand this one.
The Secrets of Solace does a vivid job depicting a young woman’s drive to break away from the structures and limits of her home. Ultimately, Lina has to come to terms with what home means to her, before she can decide whether she will try and leave it forever. The book delivers a strong message about how, even when our home towns may seem boring, they can contain secret depths that we can uncover if we are willing to look.
In addition to The Mark of the Dragonfly and The Secrets of Solace, Jaleigh Johnson’s books for the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms fiction line include The Howling Delve, Mistshore, Unbroken Chain, The Darker Road, and Spider and Stone. In her spare time, she is an avid gamer, and also enjoys gardening, reading and going to the movies with her husband. Another book set in Solace, Journey of the Iron Glory, will be published in 2017.
About the writer…Nathaniel Forsythe is a writer who lives in Champaign and tries to unearth its deepest mysteries. He may try to unearth Urbana’s deepest mysteries too, if he gets around to it, and if he has enough spare time. It’s definitely next on the list.