The magic system in Pascale Lacelle’s debut YA novel, Curious Tides, is so perfect, so logical (in a certain kind of magical way), that I’m a little bit shocked I haven’t encountered it before. In Lacelle’s world, people have magical powers that are determined by the phase the moon is in when they’re born. Each phase has a quartet of possible abilities that are shaped by the tides.
The rarest—and wildest—powers of all belong to those born during an eclipse. Many people fear and hate the Eclipse-born, but that’s nothing Emory Ainsleif has to worry about, being a Healer born under the new moon. She’s totally magically unremarkable… apart from the fact that at the end of her freshman year at magic college, she inexplicably survived a secret ritual that killed eight of her classmates.
Curious Tides begins as Emory returns to Aldryn College for sophomore year. She’s understandably quite anxious about going back to school, and she’s mourning her best friend, Romie, who was lost in that ritual-gone-wrong. Romie was everything Emory thinks she’s not: outgoing, confident, and maybe a little secretive as freshman year went on. What was going on with Romie is just one of the mysteries that will eat up Emory’s school year.
And when I say eat up, I mean that while this novel is billed as dark academia, it’s academic only until the plot gets up and rolling—at which point everyone appears to stop going to class. Understandable, given what they’re all dealing with, but a bit of a disappointment, too. Aldryn College is a beautifully created setting, full of incredible libraries and dorms unlike anything us ordinary folks will ever encounter, and I’d love to have spent more time with its classrooms and lessons.
For the first hundred pages or so, Curious Tides is a slow-burn of character building and scene setting—and a really enjoyable one at that. The narrative alternates between Emory and Baz, an Eclipse-born who is also Romie’s brother. He, too, is in mourning, but not just for Romie: The only other Eclipse-born at school, Kai, is now locked up in the Institute, having Collapsed. Collapsing is a sort of destructive magical burnout that may or may not take out anyone near the Collapsing person; it’s one of the reasons everyone else fears the Eclipse-born, but not the only one. Eclipse-born are associated with the Shadow of Ruin, a mythic figure responsible for the loss of the Tides, a quartet of long-lost gods.
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Baz is a fan of another story: Song of the Drowned Gods, a popular novel that may be more than it seems. The book famously has a missing epilogue, a torn-out page that some fans are obsessed with finding, convinced it might be a spell or a secret or, maybe, an indicator that the story in the novel is not entirely fiction.
As you can see, there’s a lot to explore and to explain, and Lacelle pulls it off nicely, seeding in backstories and allegiances, jealousies and flirtations—and then, frankly, horrors, when one of the lost students washes up on shore. He’s alive, and then he’s not, and in the process of trying to heal him, Emory finds herself tapping into powers that she should not be able to access. Baz, who can manipulate time, saves her from discovery by her classmates and professors. This secret ties them together, but Emory is also quite taken with a wealthy, popular classmate, the always-three-named Keiran Dunhall Thornby.
Keiran is clearly up to no good from the first time he steps into Emory’s view, but Emory is too distracted to see that. For a brief moment, it seems like the central plot of Curious Tides is “Oops, I accidentally joined a magical secret society, now what” but that’s a bit of a misdirect. What’s actually happening is absolutely everything else: There is a secret society, and it has its fingers in everything from magic drugs to corrupt magic cops. There is another group of people trying to solve the mystery of Song of the Drowned Gods (the author of which is named Cornus Clover; if you hadn’t already thought of The Magicians, that last name, so close to Plover, would probably do it). There are revelations about Emory’s long-missing mother, who left her with her father when she was a baby; Baz’s father’s Collapse; the very nature of magical Collapse; and the truth of the creepy caves near Aldryn College, among other things. And there’s a love triangle, for good measure.
It’s a lot, and it gets away from Lacelle a bit, as do the copious lunar and tidal metaphors and similes. As their situations get more intense, characters bite out, seethe, bemoan, groan, and muse their dialogue—distracting choices that kept pulling me out of the story. What begins as a moody magic school tale ends in a flurry of dizzying action that leaves many questions to be answered in the second book of the duology.
(As a side note: This book is stunningly designed. Moon phases are everywhere, the chapter headings are beautiful, even the case has a lovely silver stamp. Bravo to both the cover and interior designers.)
Curious Tides feels a bit like someone put The Magicians and the complete works of Sarah J. Maas in a blender along with a book about the moon. There’s much to like, from excellent secondary characters (more Jae, please!) to the alluring libraries to the lunar magics to the rich mythology, but by the time this 500-page volume reaches its final act, it feels overstuffed and chaotic. There is simply so much plot that much of it ceases to feel meaningful, even as world-shaking events are happening. But with so many revelations now out in the open, perhaps its sequel will have a little more room to breathe.
Curious Tides is published by Margaret K. McElderry Books.