“Wraith” by Helen Harper

Original and entertaining standalone novel about a unique supernatural’s struggle to survive in an alternative future goblin-owned Stirling.

In “Wraith”, Helen Harper has once again come up with an original magical world, this time set in an alternative Stirling, occupied by one set of goblins and besieged by another.

The main character, Saiya Buchanan, is a Wraith, a type of supernatural I haven’t seen before, who can send their shadow away to spy on or assassinate people but who hates to be touched. The goblins are a cruel, greedy, occupying force who see themselves as superior to the humans in the city and the people in Holyrood are doing nothing to help (where has Scotland seen that pattern before? It made me wonder if the Goblins would all have English accents)

There’s also a Dark Elf asa anEnvoy of the Crown and a secret the Goblins are hiding from everyone and fighting over between themselves.

Saiya Buchanan, the Wraith at the centre of the story is well-drawn and won my sympathy early and kept it. She is a survivor in Goblin-occupied Stirling that’s been under siege for three years. The people are starving, the goblins are brutal and the government in Holyrood are doing nothing to help, so our Saiya makes her living by selling secrets to the people who run the black market.

One of the strengths of the book is how vividly the plight of the humans in the occupied city is drawn: how little hope they have, how much determination they show, how being oppressed, starved and treated as property brings out the worst and the best in people.

There were also some exciting action set pieces, including a spectacular takedown of an enormous Death Worm.

The relationship between our Saiya and the Dark Elf envoy, Gabriel de Florinville, is cleverly done. He’s a Darcy archetype who never quite unclenches enough to become likeable. She’s a street-fighter version of Elizabeth Bennet with superpowers. Helen Harper avoids the ritual dance of cute-meet, unresolved sexual tension, upset and happy ever after. Her characters are natural enemies. Their attraction for one another smells of compulsion rather than choice. He remains a prig and she remains fierce and absolutely refuses to play the rescued princess role.

The big secret was intriguing and the denouement was clever and original and kept the tension cranked up but I didn’t believe the scenes at Holyrood.

The only thing I didn’t like about “Wraith” was the way it opened. Most of the book is told from Saiya’s point of view and her personality power the story. The opening isn’t from Saiya’s point of view. It describes a conversation between the Dark Elf and his human colleague in Stirling Castle that provides a not very engaging scene-setter and then continues up to the point where Gabriel de Florinville captures a Wraith’s shadow that is spying on him. Then Helen Harper used one of those “24 hours earlier” things that seldom work for me and the story becomes a first-person account from Saiya’s point of view. The effect was like moving from black and white to colour in a movie. I was immediately more engaged both by Saiya’s personality and by the world around her.

I didn’t get back to Gabriel de Florinville until twenty per cent of the way through the book and I found some of the repetition irritating. For me, the book would have worked better if it had started from the first chapter told from Saiya’s point of view.

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