Review: Unseelie – Ivelisse Housman
by Ivelisse Housman
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Publication Date: January 3, 2023
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Twin sisters, both on the run, but different as day and night. One, a professional rogue, searches for a fabled treasure; the other, a changeling, searches for the truth behind her origins, trying to find a place to fit in with the realm of fae who made her and the humans who shun her.
Iselia “Seelie” Graygrove looks just like her twin, Isolde… but as an autistic changeling trying to navigate her unpredictable magic, Seelie finds it more difficult to fit in with the humans around her. When Seelie and Isolde are caught up in a heist gone wrong and make some unexpected allies, they find themselves unraveling a larger mystery that has its roots in the history of humans and fae alike.
Both sisters soon discover that the secrets of the faeries may be more valuable than any pile of gold and jewels. But can Seelie harness her magic in time to protect her sister, and herself?
I’ll be completely honest and admit that it was the gorgeous cover that caught my eye. And then when I found out it was about two sisters, one a changeling who’s written as autistic? I couldn’t request a copy fast enough. And it definitely met all of my expectations! While I didn’t realize it when I started it, this is the first book in a series. While several plot lines are wrapped up well, there’s many that aren’t, up to a mild cliffhanger.
Seelie is a changeling, raised along with her human twin sister Isolde in a small village until her magic caused an accident. Now they travel from town to town in an enchanted wagon, picking pockets to get by and leaving town as soon as anyone suspects Seelie’s a changeling. But on the night when the fae still walk among mortals, a burglary gone wrong lands the sisters in more trouble than they could’ve imagined.
I’m always up for a heist novel and this is an absolute gem of one. From the beginning, the sisters and the mysterious pair of Olani and Raze are completely outmatched and they’re not foolish enough to think otherwise. Rather than relying on gee-whiz powers (though we do see some of that) they’re hoping their speed and stealth will get them to the prize first. Their journey is paced well, with little tidbits about each of the characters’ pasts and motivations dropped along the way. It does have a lot of common YA fantasy tropes – Seelie and Unseelie courts, power-hungry ruling families, only the main character can save the world!! – that sort of thing, but nothing feels stale. I thought Birch, the brownie who lives in the sisters’ wagon, was an especially charming and hilarious touch.
I liked Olani and Raze and the relationship that form between them and the sisters. There’s a light romantic element between Raze and Seelie (though Seelie would deny it til the cows come home), and tantalizing hints of one between Olani and Isolde. Other than that, the relationships are explored are either as friends or as family. When Seelie thinks of family, she mainly thinks of her sister Isolde. She’s impetuous and a bit fearless and she loves her sister dearly. Isolde understands her in a way that no one else does, but she’s not Seelie’s caretaker. Seelie’s perfectly capable of managing on her own and frankly is sometimes the one cleaning up Isolde’s messes. Such a close and deep relationship doesn’t come without disagreements of course but there’s no doubt that they’d do anything for each other.
“I don’t want to be the changeling enchanter who summons storms and flings fireballs. I just want to make my parents proud, to feel the comfort of family and home. I want to make cakes somewhere cozy, where no one has any expectations of me, and be left alone.”
But what I truly loved about this book is that it’s told from the POV of an autistic heroine written by an autistic author. It never comes out and uses the descriptions we’d use today – sensory meltdowns, stimming, discomfort with eye contact, difficulty reading emotions – but we’re shown what life is like in Seelie’s head in a very matter-of-fact way. It was so refreshing to have a character just be neurodivergent without all the hand-wringing and filtering through a neurotypical perspective.
In some ways Seelie’s relationship with magic is a stand-in for her neurodivergence. She’s struggled all her life to blend in, to push down her magic, and now it keeps exploding out of her in violent and unpredictable ways. The others are insistent she needs to learn to manage it but Seelie’s so used to thinking of her magic as wrong – as something that makes her unworthy – that none of their arguments sway her. It’s Raze who, with a moment of vulnerability and empathy, helps her understand and move towards accepting her magic.
“It’s an inconvenience to be unwanted. It’s a curse to be needed.”
Raze has a complicated connection with his family, as does Seelie, though their respective relationships are nothing alike. There’s no doubt that Seelie’s family loves her – her mother defied a fae court in order to take both of her daughters back! – but it doesn’t seem like they always understand her. Raze is equally not what his family expected or wanted, but instead of Seelie’s family’s passive reinforcement of her desire to keep her magic chained, he’s abused to try to get him to adhere to what they want. So while they start as reluctant allies, their similarities lead them to become friends.
“Maybe by the time we get there I’ll have decided whether I want to redeem my family legacy or burn it all to the ground.”
Overall, I couldn’t put this book down and finished it in one day and immediately tried to look up when the sequel would be out. Recommended for anyone looking for a delightfully fun road trip/heist novel, made even better by the autistic rep!
Content notes: View Spoiler »violence (including blood and murder), ableism, child abuse (described, before book began), death of parents (before book starts), magical compulsion (including kissing), body horror (disfigurement from magic) « Hide Spoiler