In a land where the Eagle is God and bird omens determine the course of human life, young Aggie Cotter leaves her village for the nearby estate, Murkmere, where she will be companion to Leah, the willful ward of the estate's Master. As she struggles to gain acceptance, Aggie begins to suspect that nothing is what she thought or as it seemed: not Leah, who disregards the superstitions of faith and has an unnatural bond with the mere's swans--nor Aggie's family, or the religion and government that she has always trusted. Murkmere suffers from a number of faults, including poorly constructed characters and an unsatisfying conclusion, yet the book is engrossing and possesses a certain sense of otherworldy magic that keeps the reader constantly curious, always hoping to discover more. Although I have reservations, I recommend the book on the basis of that mystery and magic, and I hope that the sequel delves deeper into that promising aspect.
On the whole, this book is unremarkable. It is peppered by a number of faults: The villains, both large and local, are unoriginal, some following the tired trope of twisting religion for personal gain, some merely evil by nature. The narrator, although the purported protagonist, goes through little character growth and is much less interesting than Leah, who has a more important story to tell. Although the book's climax is satisfying, the ending feels empty--for Aggie, there is no real conclusion; the reader is not privy to the end of Leah's story. Although minor on their own, together these faults combine to take the book down a notch, making it a little too simple to read, a little too shallow in depth.
For all of this, Murkmere has a certain charm. By and large the writing style is nothing special, but skillful pacing builds a sense of foreboding, inserts action to hold reader interest, and leads to a satisfying climax that fulfills the sense and scope of the book. More than all of this, there is also a strange, unearthly beauty to the story: in the obsession with birds, in the Leah's still-secretive nature, in the secrets also of Murkmere itself, the book seems to offer a magical world that is not yet explored. I wish that the book did delve more into this world, indulge in the fantastical aspects, show us more of Leah's story and her character--yet even if I wish for more, what is present is atmospheric and interesting, pulling the reader deep into the book (which is quite hard to put down) and keeping him ever curious for more information, for one more glimpse of magic.
It was the mysterious fantastical aspects that kept me avidly interested in Murkmere and it is on that basis that I recommend the book. While far from the best I've ever read, I found myself constantly intrigued. I hope that the sequel better embraces this aspect--the faith without close-binding rules, the magic without fear or superstition--and, even better, that they adopt Leah as the narrator or at least the primary character. However, even in the sequel disappoints, I do recommend this book. It has many faults, but it also has a sense of beauty, mystery, and wonder that I wish I saw in more books and greatly enjoyed the the tantalizing, limited glimpses in which it is presented here.