Here's the story. Humans have staked out settlements in a land of "monsters"--centaurs, dwarves, fauns, and the like--and have met these monsters with hatred. The non-human creatures return the favor. Within the settlement walls, hatred also runs hot for those who fall short of this culture's physical ideal for humanity. One such is Abisina, outcast from birth because of her dark hair and skin. She thinks she knows hatred pretty well, but when a charismatic leader arrives at her village, and preaches death to all outcasts, she has to revise her opinion. Especially as she sees this leader for the hideous white worm that he is (literally).
Fleeing from the savage attacks of her neighbors, and the horror of her mother's death at their hands, Abisina sets out to find the father she never knew, to a place she does not know how to find--Watersmeet. On her journey beyond the mountains, she must learn to trust and value the native peoples of these lands. Without the help of two dwarves, she would never have lived to find her father. And when she meets her father, she must discard every vestige of her ingrained prejudices in order to be truly his daughter. He is the leader of the united folk of Watersmeet, who must now stand against the White Worm who threatens to destroy all that is beautiful and peaceful. He is also more than simply human...
Ok--this perhaps sounds like an old plot. Outcast girl sets off on a quest, helped by magical creatures, and finds a realm of the blessed, her lost father, and powers she never knew she had. But it's a good framework to hang a story on, when the author makes her main character someone to care about and respect, as Abbott does. I was, at first, a tad doubtful about the mythological creatures, but was pleased to find them interesting and varied--they avoid being cliches. And (as I mentioned above) Abbott knows how to tell a page-turning story. I would be happy to read more books set in her world.
I find the book's cover striking and compelling. It has the look of one of those edgy, dark, ya fantasies which are currently in vogue, and perhaps, given that in-vogueness, this was the intent. I did not, however, find the book itself as dark and edgy as all that (I could, of course, have become Hardened to it all), so I don't think the cover goes with the book (and in fact older teens judging the book by its cover might be a smidge disappointed).
While Watersmeet has dark moments, they do not last long, nor are they pitch black. Although the story begins with hatred and violence, it is terrible without being overly graphic, and although there is a very vivid battle scene, Abbott manages to convey the horror of it without recourse to an overload of gore. My feeling was that this book is on the young side of YA-- I can imagine this book being adored by fantasy loving seventh and eighth-graders, and even many sixth-graders (so I've put a middle grade tag on it, as well as YA).
Ellen Jensen Abbott has created a Teacher's Guide to accompany the book, which touches on such topics as war, prejudice, symbolism, the construction of the past and the construction of identity. Interesting stuff.
And here's another review, a glowing one, at Shelf Elf.
Watersmeet is Ellen Jensen Abbott's first published book, and is the first book I've read for the '09 Debut Author's Challenge. I'm hoping to read all the middle grade and ya fantasy/science fiction debut books that I can find (here's my list so far--please let me know if I'm missing anything!).