by Curtis Edmonds
Genre: NA Fantasy
Release Date: February 20th 2020
Scary Hippopotamus Books
On the battlefield of dreams, the strongest weapons are imagination--and love.
Ashlyn Revere is a bright, determined and resourceful college graduate trying to get a job in publishing. When Ashlyn and her sister Penny are left comatose after an automobile accident, they find themselves in Summervale, a beautiful and perilous realm straight from the pages of fantasy novels--which is ruled by a mysterious Dark Lord.
When Ashlyn discovers that Penny is being held captive, she enlists the help of a talking black rabbit and a scarlet knight to save her sister. She learns that Penny is deep within her own fantasy of Regency romance—and that she sees being in a coma as a way to escape from her daily struggles with cystic fibrosis. Ashlyn tries to rescue her anyway, but a fire-breathing dragon and a real-world seizure complicate her plans.
As Penny recovers from her injuries and leaves Summervale, Ashlyn is rescued by a servant of the Dark Lord who promises to show her just how precarious her own medical situation is. In the real world, Ashlyn’s medical condition has worsened, forcing her doctors to consider risky surgery. Ashlyn rejects an offer from the Dark Lord to remain in Summervale forever, and chooses to raise an army of knights to fight for her freedom and independence.
Penny must face a choice of her own. As Ashlyn hovers between life and death, Penny learns that Ashlyn would be a good match to provide the donor set of lungs that Penny needs to free her from the constraints of cystic fibrosis.
As doctors battle to save Ashlyn’s life, she leads her forces against the Dark Lord in a desperate conflict in the streets of an imaginary Manhattan—while Penny must find the answer to her own destiny in a dying circle of firelight. Can the sisters rescue themselves—and each other?
A CIRCLE OF FIRELIGHT blends postmodern fantasy and real-world emotional conflict in a daring tale that will delight adult and young adult readers alike.
What Edmonds does especially well is to sprinkle fantasy and pop-culture references throughout, making the volume accessible even to readers who aren’t genre fans. What results is a charming tale that allows every reader to smile knowingly. A sturdy, well-crafted, and vibrant fantasy. -- Kirkus Reviews
The execution is for the most part charming and clever, with lively dialogue, easy pacing, and fleshed-out protagonists... Edmonds’s novel evokes the magic of portal fantasies while grounding it with emotionally resonant relationships." -- Booklife
“Here” turns out to be a narrow country lane, paved with flagstones. Tall evergreen hedges flank the pathway on either side, trimmed with new-fallen snow. At the end of the lane is an imposing English manor house, its roof half-hidden in snow. A thin plume of black smoke rises from the chimney.
“Your sister is inside,” Nicholas says.
“Wait a minute,” I say. “How do you know she’s in there? There could be anything inside that house. Like, I don’t know, a bear or something.”
“What is in there,” Nicholas says, “is much worse than any bear.”
I feel a cold shiver down my spine that has nothing to do with the arctic weather. “What specifically are we talking about, here,” I say.
“Look at the door.”
I walk up the steps to the porch, keeping an eye out for anything that might decide to burst through the hedge. The front door is black, newly painted and glossy, and the brass knocker is shaped like a mermaid.
“I don’t get it,” I say.
Nicholas hops onto the porch. “Technically, that is not a mermaid. It is a siren.”
I take a deep breath, remembering the sound of the sirens that came to rescue me after the car crash. But that is not what Nicholas is talking about. “The sirens are beautiful women,” I say, “who sing so seductively that they lure sailors to their deaths.”
“Not women, not exclusively, but yes. The siren is likely trying to entice—or seduce—your sister. You will have to use your powers of persuasion to counter whatever he or she is telling her.”
“Great. Thanks. You have my back in right?”
“No, Lady Ashlyn.”
I squat down to put myself on Nicholas’ level. “What are you talking about? You’re my guide, right?”
“I am, and I have guided you here. But I cannot enter the house. I will wait here for you.”
“Look here, Mr. Bunny Rabbit.”
“I thought we agreed not to use that word.”
“Nicholas, you will explain right now what is going on, in words I can understand, or I am going to open that door and throw you to the siren.”
“You would not dare, and even if you did, it would make no difference. I would simply bounce off the door. That house is a part of your sister’s consciousness. I have no place there. The Dark Lord himself could not enter your sister’s plane of existence. Only you can go inside. Only you can rescue your sister. I would help if I could, but I cannot.”
“Great. what do I do? How do I rescue her?”
“When you open the door, you are choosing to enter your sister’s plane of existence. I cannot tell you what that will be like, as I only have your plane of existence for reference. What I can tell you is that just as you choose to enter her plane, she may choose to leave hers to enter yours—or she may not.”
“You cannot rescue her by force,” Nicholas says. “You will have to use persuasion. You will have to convince her to leave the siren and come with you. And it will be difficult, because the siren has its own powers of persuasion, and has had longer to convince your sister of whatever it wants her to hear. talk to her, listen to her, and figure out how to get her to choose for herself what she needs to do.”
“That’s good advice,” I say. “I think I can do it. But don’t forget that I’m still mad at you. When this is over, we are going to have a long talk.”
“That will be lovely.” Nicholas hops off the porch and starts nibbling on a holly bush.
I bring down the siren-shaped knocker, hard. No response. I reach to lift the knocker again, and the door opens, revealing the figure of an English gentleman.
“State your business,” he says.
He is long and lean, with a dark complexion and fever-bright eyes. His black hair cascades down in carefully coifed ringlets. He is wearing a heavy coat over a dark maroon waistcoat, and patent-leather boots shined to a mirror-bright finish.
“Hi there,” I say. “My name is, um, Lady Ashlyn Revere, and I am looking for my sister, Penny, and my friend thought that she might be here.”
“You are intruding on my privacy,” the gentleman says, in an accent straight out of a BBC serial drama. “My privacy, and that of my guest. Not to mention that you’ve decided to pay a social call dressed in such outlandish attire.”
“The jacket? It’s a little cold outside, you know. Actually, if I could come in for a minute to get warm—that’s quite the fire you have going on back there.”
“Mister Darcy!” a high-pitched voice says. “You are being most terribly rude to our guest, and on such a snowy day.”
Darcy—and that is plainly his name—grimaces, but opens the door and grudgingly lets me in. Penny is there, standing behind Darcy, and she dodges around him to give me a smothering hug. “It is you! I thought it might be. I am so pleased to see you, sister dear.”
Penny is using a phony English accent and is wearing a rich red velvet dress trimmed with black embroidery, complete with a lace bodice that is suitable for ripping, if one enjoys such things. Her hair is usually lank and stringy when it isn’t a mass of tangles. Now it is artfully teased and crimped, with cascades of flowing tresses framing her long face. And she is wearing makeup, which is what makes my jaw drop the most. Penny has never had any interest in makeup that I know about. But here she is, looking like she has just stepped off the cover of a Regency romance novel, with Darcy looking every inch the gentleman. She finally go of me. If she’s noticed the chain mail underneath my coat, she doesn’t say so.
“My sweet sister,” she says. “Whatever might you be doing here?”
“Hi there,” I say. “Long time, no see.”
“Is it truly you?” she asks. “How ever did you get here?”
“I would be happy to explain,” I say, with a sidelong glance at Mr. Darcy. “Perhaps in a more private setting.”
“Of course,” she says. “But first, I have to introduce you to Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy, this is my sister, the Lady Ashlyn.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Darcy says. He does not look happy to see me, but it is hard to imagine anything bringing light to his arrogant features. “Faith, I did not know that the Lady Penelope had a sister, let alone one so fair. If, perhaps, somewhat rustic.”
I stifle a you did not just say that to me, and give Darcy my dimmest smile.
“Dear Mr. Darcy,” Penny says, “May I trouble you for a few minutes alone with my sister? We have not seen each other in ever so long, and it would be so lovely to talk for a few moments.”
This sounds like a great deal to me. Darcy frowns so hard that I am afraid that he is going to cause himself some damage.
“As you wish,” Darcy says, with a notable sneer in his voice. “But only for a few moments. Cook will have dinner on the table soon. And you might wish to find your dear sister some more appropriate attire.”
“Thank you kindly, my only love. We won’t be long.”
Darcy stalks out of the foyer, the hobnails of his heavy boots ringing on the floor. Penny takes my hand and walks me toward what I imagine to be some kind of parlor. It turns out to be a low-ceilinged room with worn beige wall-to-wall carpet and a window that looks out onto a scraggly woodland. It’s all very familiar, just as though I have lived there most of my life, which is because I have.
“You took my room,” I say.
“Mom and Dad should have let me take it when you left,” she says. “You like what I’ve done with it?”
“New furniture,” I say. “Nice.” The room—my room—is decorated in a haphazard way, with old movie posters stuck on the wall, and paper snowflakes hanging from the ceiling. “But why would you hang out in here when you could hang out with Mr. Darcy, at long last? I mean, you’ve spent so much time with your nose in Pride and Prejudice, and now here he is, big as life.”
“Because I need a break every once in a while,” she says. “I mean, look, I love Darcy, of course I do, but he’s kind of clingy, you know? Maybe not that, but you know what I mean.” Penny plops down onto the bed, and her velvet dress changes into jeans and a black T-shirt. Her carefully arranged hair resolves itself into its usual lank strands.
Arrogant and creepy is more like it. I sit down on a beanbag across from Penny. “What do you know about Mr. Darcy? Honestly, he seems like kind of a jerk.”
“How can you say that about the love of my life? You’ve barely even met him.”
“And as soon as I did meet him, he told me to get lost,” I say. “Have you been here the entire time?”
“I have no idea,” Penny says. “All I remember is that you were mad at me for hitching a ride with you to New York. And then I was looking at my phone, trying to figure someplace we could go for lunch after your job interview, and then something hit me over the head. I woke up in this huge four-poster bed, with Darcy sitting beside me.”
“There was a car wreck,” I explain. “Not my fault. I was sitting at the stoplight, and a van crashed into us. I woke up in the emergency room, and then they put me in surgery.”
Penny sits up in alarm. “Seriously? Did we both die? Are we in Heaven? Because if this is Heaven, I’m going to have a second helping of Yorkshire pudding.”
“As far as I know, we’re both in the hospital.” I rub my gloved hands together; I am still freezing cold despite the apparent warmth of the cottage. “My working theory is that we’re both alive, just asleep and dreaming. But I heard you were in danger, so that’s why I came to rescue you.”
Penny, relieved to hear this, bounces up and down on her bed. “Rescue me from what? Darcy? Get real.”
“They told me that you had been captured by an entity, someone who wished you ill.” I saw no need to tell her that the pronoun they in that sentence referred to a talking rabbit and a large knight. “They said you were in danger.”
Of course, they had also said that I was the chosen one who had to destroy the Dark Lord. Penny doesn’t look as though she is in any danger of anything except being ravished by Mr. Darcy. If she is really all right, then I can walk out of here with a clean conscience and start worrying about when I am going to leave , and if Nicholas is telling me the truth about not being able to murder me.
“That’s nonsense,” Penny says. “I love Darcy. He’s sweet, and he dances divinely, and he does whatever I want him to. No matter what.” She lets a little fey grin cross her face. “Why would I want to be rescued from that?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don’t know if you’re in any danger or not, actually. What I can tell you is that you’re in a place called the Eastern Marches. It’s not supposed to be safe.”
“Darcy is perfectly safe. Well, maybe not perfectly, but safe enough. Ashlyn, listen, you don’t need to hang around here if you don’t want to. I don’t need to be rescued. I’m completely happy here.”
“I suppose there are worse places where you can be than in the pages of your favorite book. Well, then. If you wake up before I do, say hi to Mom and Dad for me, and tell them I love them.”
Penny tilts her head. “Wake up? You don’t understand. I’m staying here.”
I feel my body shiver, and not from the cold.
“What do you mean, you’re staying here? You have to wake up eventually.”
“Who says? I only have your say-so to prove I’m not dead. If I am dead, I don’t have anything to worry about, and I can stay here with Darcy forever. If I’m unconscious, I also don’t have anything to worry about, and I can stay here with Darcy as long as that lasts. I’m not planning on going back, if I have any say in it.”
“You’re not dead, Penny.” I have to believe this, because if Penny is dead, I must be, too. “We’re somewhere else, in a place called . We need to figure out how to leave here and get back to the real world.”
Penny crosses her arms and pouts. “You can do what you want. I’m staying right here.”
Nicholas said that Darcy is a siren and that his hold on Penny is strong. I now understand just how strong. I bang my fists together, trying to come up with a good argument to persuade her to leave.
“I can’t let you do that. We need to figure out how to get out of this place, together.”
“Don’t talk to me about sisterly togetherness. You were ready to ditch me just this morning.”
“This is a different situation, Penny.”
“That’s right,” she says. “This is a totally different situation. And I like it. Do you want to know why?”
“Penny, listen to me,” I say. “We need to— “
“No,” she says. “You need to listen to me. You know why I like it here, you’re just too afraid to acknowledge it.”
“I like it here because I can breathe. That’s all. We’ve been sitting here arguing, and you haven’t heard me cough, not once. I get up in the morning, and I don’t have to cough out ten pounds of phlegm. I don’t have to wear that stupid jacket or have Mom and Dad wake up early and pound on my back to help me get rid of the other ten pounds. I don’t have to take one single pill, not one. I can go anywhere I want and not worry about getting infections. I don’t have to feed my face to make sure I get enough nutrition. I can walk. I can run. I can dance all night long. And other things. Do you understand me?”
This is not going well. We need to get out of here. I need to calm her down, and she is not calming down, and we have to get out of here, and I don’t know what to do.
“Okay, look,” I say. “I know…”
“No. You don’t know. You think you know because you watch me go through all of but you don’t know. CF didn’t happen to you. It happened to me.”
“You think I had it easy? I had to be the responsible one. I had to look after you, make sure you were okay. Do you have any idea how much of my childhood I lost because you were sick? Everything I had to give up? You can’t sit there and tell me you were the only one who suffered. We all did. Not as much as you, but we did, just the same.”
Penny’s face is red, and she glares at me as though I have struck her.
“Maybe you did suffer, a little. But you had options. You could go to sleepovers. You could go to summer camp. You could go to college. Pretty soon, you’re going to leave for good. But I am stuck here. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to college. I’m not going to get to grow old.”
“I know that, Penny, and I’m sorry, but staying here isn’t going to solve anything.”
“It solves everything. Don’t you get it? I’m happy here. If you want to leave, if you want to go back to reality, that’s great. I hope you do. Enjoy yourself. I want to stay here. And if you make it out of here, tell Mom and Dad not to wake me up.”
“Don’t say that. You can’t mean it.” Had I crossed the bridge to rescue Penny just to lose her for good?
“Maybe I’m dead. I am fine with that. I’ve been getting ready for that all my life. Maybe I’m on a respirator, breathing through a tube, and if that’s true, I am going to enjoy it as long as it lasts. If that’s the rest of my life, that’s fine with me. I’m happy here. I don’t want to wake up.”
I have battled a fear-beast and crossed into the Eastern Marches to rescue Penny, and now I am losing her—not to the car accident, or the disease that is slowly claiming her life, but to a vicious siren offering her an unreal fantasy. That, and her own stubborn nature. “I don’t know what Darcy is telling you, Penny, but you can’t turn your back on everyone you love for him. I need you. Mom and Dad need you. You have to believe me.”
“You don’t need me. You never did. I am your sick little sister who ruins your life. But I’m not sick here. I’m healthy. Not just healthy. I am awesome. And I want to be this way for as long as I can.”
“It’s an illusion, Penny. It’s not real.”
“I don’t care that it’s an illusion. Why aren’t you listening to me? Darcy loves me. We go riding out in the countryside—for real, not just that therapeutic riding stuff. We go on picnics. We make love under the stars. Well, I mean, what he calls ‘making love.’ It’s very Regency-era and weird, but it’s nice.”
“It’s not reality, Penny. Darcy isn’t real. He’s a—”
“Aren’t you listening? I don’t care if it’s not real. It’s better than real, because reality stinks. I’m not leaving, and I will fight you if you try to take me out of here.”
“I’m listening to you, Penny,” I say. “But that doesn’t change the facts. You can’t stay here forever, and you shouldn’t want to. Darcy doesn’t love you; he’s not capable of it. He just wants you, wants to use you for his own selfish reasons.”
“Can’t I want him, for my own selfish reasons? Besides, you’re a fine one to talk. Think about all the boyfriends you’ve had. How many of them did you use?”
“None of your business,” I snap.
“Right. None of my business. Well, this is none of your business. I am not your responsibility anymore. I didn’t ask you to rescue me, and I don’t want to be rescued. if all you can do is sit there and judge me, you can do that somewhere else. You understand me, Ashlyn?”
She is the beat of your heart, Lachesis had said, and you are the breath in her lungs.
“There’s no way I can stay here,” I say. “And I don’t mean here as in this room, or this house. I want my life back, the one I had before the accident.” I take a deep breath, because this is my best argument, and I want to make it work. “And I want you to be a part of that life. I am not leaving here without you.”
“In that case,” Penny says, “then you need to get used to wearing a corset, because you’re going to be here for a long time.”
Curtis Edmonds is a writer and attorney living in central New Jersey. He is the author of two novels, WREATHED, a humorous contemporary romance set in the beach resort of Cape May, New Jersey, and RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY, a literary romance set in the mountains north of Atlanta.
His work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Untoward Magazine, Liberty Island, The Big Jewel, Yankee Pot Roast, and National Review Online. His book reviews appear on the Bookreporter website.