The outside world is starting to feel increasingly like the beginning of a dystopian movie, what with the threat of a Coronavirus epidemic causing people to panic buy loo roll and don plastic boxes and carrier bags as makeshift hazmat masks. But in times like these, when things close to home seem surreal, I turn to fantasy novels to escape the noise. Give me a world of magic and enchantment to disappear into and I’ll be fine in a few days.
Feathertide, the debut novel by Beth Cartwright, is a hefty read at 420 pages. But I was drawn to a tale which promised to be perfect for fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus (which I absolutely loved) and Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale.
The story follows the journey of Marea, a girl born covered in the feathers of a bird and kept hidden in a crumbling house, forbidden to leave. After spending time with the Professor, a lonely figure who is enlisted to take charge of her education, Marea begins to learn about the outside world she watches so closely from the basement window. Filled with a new curiosity and a desire to find out who she really is (and why all the feathers), she leaves everything she has ever known, including the people who raised her, and goes in search of the mysterious father she has never met. This mission leads her to the City of Murmers, a place of magic, mystery and mermaids, where the broken-hearted seek to ease their pain and nothing is quite what it seems.
It’s an intriguing story with all the right ingredients to be something truly wonderful, but it fell flat in certain areas. While the book covers some tough and important topics such as difference, belonging, love and what it means to be true to yourself, Cartwright doesn’t dig quite deep enough for these to be anything more than passing thoughts. At first there are hints of menace, but nothing seems to happen. I continued to read on, willing the narrative to become richer and more introspective, but the story remained as light as Marea’s thistledown feathers.
Initially, I was captivated by the poetic language and it’s evident that Cartwright has great descriptive ability, but it soon became overdone with too many similes and metaphors. What could be (Cartwright does not lack talent) said in a few sentences often continues for a page and a half, and my attention began to drift. The novel would benefit from being at least a third shorter, and then perhaps I might have felt differently about Feathertide which has the potential to be far more than a charming tale.
The characters, including Marea, feel ghostly and, while they are interesting, lack depth. Most serve as a device to further the plot rather than adding any complexity to the narrative. The plot exists in the same vein. Yes, there are moments of intrigue but the plot isn’t developed and the story plods on with little happening. I was waiting for something to grip me, or for some sort of peak or climax, but nothing arrived. While it was a nice tale, it didn’t leave me feeling bereft when I turned the last page.
But that’s not to say Cartwright is a bad writer. On the contrary, she clearly has a rich imagination and parts of Feathertide are beautiful and poignant. It’s a big read which spans years, seas, time and lands – by no means an easy feat to cover in a single narrative. So Cartwright should be celebrated for the ambition and imagination required to write about the world she has created.
So, if you’re a fan of mystical lands, ethereal beings and perhaps, in light of our current reality, in the market for something light and straightforward, Feathertide might just be your cup of tea.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Feathertide is published by Del Rey UK (part of Penguin Random House UK) and available to buy from May 19, 2020.