Rating: 3 stars
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Lake all but idolizes his big brother, Dev; the latter embodies every positive quality someone could ask for in a brother. The two share a strong bond and Lake believes in it so much, he rarely feels bad about the fact that he never has and never could live up to the potential Dev embodies. So when colleges begin sending Lake rejection letter after rejection letter, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but also sort of par for the course. After all, the family has Dev to rely on to be their North Star. However, when Dev is tragically killed, Lake and his family are overwhelmed with the loss. It hits especially hard for Lake because he has lost his place in Dev’s shadow; the nothing he perceives himself to be feels so exposed.
Against this utter grief, Lake begins to hear strange sounds coming from his brother’s empty bedroom. Curious, Lake investigates and finds an odd piece of mail: an acceptance letter to the Breywood Academe. Unfathomably, the letter states Dev is to enroll in a school of magic, to train as a mage. What’s more, there is a magic portal hidden in Dev’s room. Suddenly, Lake is overcome with the desire to fulfill Dev’s destiny to become a mage. Not only is Lake convinced he can make his brother proud, but he is sure he will also finally find a place where he belongs.
Lake is less-than-welcome when he arrives, however, because he is not magical at all. Within twenty-four hours, he meets: Nova, who despises Lake’s status as a mere human; Stone, an attractive, mute young man; and Jackson, who steers Lake into both danger and trouble that forces Breywood to house Lake for his own safety. It seems like a cruel joke that they make him room with a boy named Knox who has a pet demon. As the school semester wears on, Lake feels no closer to finding answers about who his brother was or what his secret connection to the world of magic was all about. The hostility from his quasi-classmates is a constant. The only comfort for Lake is the growing friendship he has with fellow underdog, Knox, and a glimmer of attraction to Stone. All that changes, however, when Lake and the others discover the secret to why Dev rejected his acceptance to the Breywood Academe.
The Sigil is the first part of a new series by authors Shakeil Kanish and Larissa Mandeville. The story and its themes very loosely resemble some of the major themes from another popular series about a boy who discovers a hidden world of magic. The divide between the magical world and the human world is an important crux in the story and the alternating narratives between Lake (a plain old human) and Nova (a mage without a special gift) clearly demonstrate the depth of the prejudice against the human world. However, the juxtaposition between having these two characters serve as the lenses through which we experience the book was, in a word, jarring. The jolt starts with how dissimilar they are. Lake heads up his own string of events as he tries to carve out a space for himself at Breywood. Nova stars in a series of events that largely only intersect with Lake’s story because they take place at Breywood. Though these two streams do eventually converge at the very end, I thought the impact was diminished because it took so long to realize anything in their streams fit together. Lake’s story was Lake’s story and Nova’s story was Nova’s. It also didn’t help that Lake’s motives seemed to be muddled and Nova seems to focus on herself to the exclusion of anyone else.
So, yes. I did not really enjoy these characters. The book starts off hitting hard on the idea that Lake feels rejected because he wasn’t accepted into any of the colleges he applied to. The idea that he feels like a distant second compared to Dev is also clearly established. Yet this does not explain why Lake, once he discovers the magical Breywood Academe, suddenly decides attending the school is unquestionably what Dev wanted for Lake. Nota bene: Dev never breathed a word about magic or Breywood to anyone. We–and crucially Lake himself–later find out Dev repeatedly rejected giving up the human world for the magic one. Yet somehow, Lake convinces himself that his human self belongs in the world of magic despite all the well-explained reasons and on-page experiences all but shouting that Lake should not be there. And then there is Nova. She comes off as aggressively abrasive with everyone, even her best friend Kathryn. For example, Nova knows Kathryn had fallen in love with Dev and that Dev was murdered. However, instead of consoling Kathryn on the horrific loss of the man she loved, Nova is incredulous that Kathryn would feel sad about Dev’s murder for more than a day or two. I also could not get a good feel for what really drove Lake’s actions.
One other major detractor from the story was the poor continuity/coherence among scenes. To be clear, the story was not at all unreadable, but there were constantly little differences or changes that indicated, to me, a lack of editing at best or a lack of planning at worst. One example is how Kathryn (Dev’s girlfriend, Nova’s best friend) has a birthmark that is first described as “pinkish” and “blink and you’d miss it” and later becomes “strawberry red” and covers the entire left-side of her face. Another example was a notebook Lake finds that contains newspaper articles about a mysterious murder spree from several years ago. It was clear the articles contained critical links between past events and current ones, but because of the poor prose style, it was not clear if the journals were made by Lake or Dev, if they were paper or digital. In terms of pure style, there was nothing to differentiate (i.e. no italics or quotes or indentation or anything) the narration from the article being read. For a piece of the story that is so critical to Dev’s history (ergo important to Lake), it was just stunning to see how bungled this revelatory scene felt.
For readers who enjoy battle and fight scenes, the authors go all-in on several of these featuring otherworldly creatures. If nothing else, these scenes punch up the tension. Those of us who enjoy a bit of gore and/or thoroughly described physical conflicts will likely appreciate these fights. I thought they also broke up a bit of the drama train, if nothing else.
Overall, I thought this book had a lot of potential. In broad strokes, I thought Lake and Nova captured some very relatable qualities: being rejected and not fitting in (Lake), being self-centered to a fault (Nova). But I thought the choice to cut up and separate the two main characters so distinctly worked against the cohesion of the story and, because the characters were so thoroughly reflecting a narrow slice of experiences, it made the book drag for me. Things really do come together in the end, just not enough for me to erase how disjointed things feel up until then. And, finally, this is the first book in at least a two book series and it definitely ends with a cliffhanger.