In spite of the shared surname, Rachel Cotterill is not a relative. I was attracted to her work by the novelty of seeing my own (rare here in Canada) name on a published fantasy. My curiosity overcame my aversion to the book's horrible cover. Yes, I know it looks like some dreary leftist literary novel about Hispanic poverty in the American South-West, but the book is actually a lively fantasy adventure with a mythical setting, an interesting female main character (named simply Eleanor), and a strong martial-arts theme.
Much of the novel's abundant action takes place at a kind of Hogwarts for assassins. These assassins resemble medieval knife-wielding poison-toting secret agents who venture out on dangerous missions in defence of a shadowy Empire that straddles a forested archipelago. Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice comes to mind. If you liked Hobb's book you will probably enjoy Rebellion as well. The story moves along quickly and fight scenes are abundant. The knife fights are especially good, as are the tense climbing episodes where Eleanor - never short on courage and endurance - scales prison towers or castle walls with only the scantiest of toe and finger holds. Weaponry includes throwing stars and these add a pleasing ninja touch to the young assassins. There are imaginative puzzles to be solved, unusual competitions to be won, occasional glances at Eleanor's ambiguous feelings towards a certain young man, and for good measure, some deep-seated grudges among the students, which mean scores to be settled. These elements provide more than enough variety to ensure a good read.
The novel does have some shortcomings. The plot is so vaguely presented that, at times, I had trouble understanding what was going on - or why it was going on. In the early chapters Cotterill seems too focussed on showing us how her main characters try to avoid offending one another - the result of long exposure to political correctness, no doubt - but she does get over this. Then it's on to flogging the tired old feminist horse. This may be a plus for some, but personally, I think we're past all that. At one point, the story dwells somewhat morbidly, but not unrealistically, on torture and being cut. This seems needlessly extended at the time, but turns out to be important in shaping Eleanor's character and affecting her responses to critical situations later on. There are exceptions, but Cotterill's depiction of minor characters exhibits an odd juxtaposing of those who are wantonly cruel and those who are ridiculously obliging. What seaside innkeeper, to choose one incident, would loan his boat to a total stranger, for an indefinite period, without asking for a deposit or some surety? The book needs more characters with the typically human - and far more interesting - mix of virtue and vice. Motivation should arise from the realities of basic self-interest (money, sex, prestige) rather than the desire to be unspeakably cruel or super nice.
Some might question the novel's implied morality. Eleanor's values range from astonishingly shallow to dubious in the extreme. The young woman unswervingly assumes that personal need justifies stealing so long as you keep the thefts small and spread them around (with the occasional grand theft when things get dire). It seldom occurs to her that she might barter or offer to work for what she wants. I was amused when Eleanor conscientiously pays the bill at an inn - with money that she has just stolen by the fistful from a jewellery merchant in the marketplace. Why not simply stiff the innkeeper? Presumably, in Eleanor's eyes, said innkeeper was a nice obliging fellow of modest means while the prosperous merchant was - well - a nasty grasping greedy capitalist oinker, a veritable corporatist in the bud. Perhaps; but on the other hand he just might be an honest lover of beautiful, and beautifully-crafted, things who, through hard work and ingenuity, has found a way to earn his living from the very objects he so admires.
Other problems include poor handling of time and distance. I was startled to discover that Eleanor's attempts to find her way to the assassin's school had taken up an entire year, and at one point, she seems to consider recovering some stored possessions in a quick visit to a cave, which is actually many days travel away. These minor quibbles and the plot difficulties alluded to earlier could have been avoided with a bit more authorial narrative aimed at clarifying situations and knitting together story elements into a more cohesive whole.
No work of fiction is perfect. This novel's flaws impede neither the story's strong forward momentum nor its ability to sustain the reader's interest. As they should in a good adventure novel, things start happening right away and they keep on happening. Whether on land or at sea, in foreign parts or at home in the Empire, the story laid out in this engrossing novel is often exciting and never boring. The writing is sound with none of the dreadful spelling, grammar, and English usage gaffs so prevalent in indie novels. Cotterill has real talent. Reading Rebellion will get you in on the ground floor with a writer who has the potential to become a major player in the fantasy genre.