The Temple of Doubt, by Anne Boles Levy (Sky Pony Press, August 2015), introduces one of the most believable speculative fiction teenage protagonists I've read in a long time, a girl named Hadara, who finds herself unwillingly placed at the center of events that not only shatter the pattern of her own life, but will probably change her whole world.
It starts with a shooting star, falling into the swampy heart of her island home. Soon after, two high priests of the god Nihil and their military retinue arrive from overseas, taking over the place, and demanding help in finding what has fallen from the heavens, suspecting that instead of a harmless meteorite it is the vessel of a demon. Hadara and her mother are the only locals familiar with the swamps; they've ventured there often, gathering plants to make forbidden medicine--magic from Nihil, not natural cures, are all that their religion permits. And so Hadara and their mother find themselves guiding the preists and their guards into the dangerous realm of the nonhuman people, the lizard-like Gek, whose make the swamp their home.
And there Hadara confronts the mystery of the fallen star, and the threat it might hold...
And in the meantime, Hadara is very much a teenage girl! Even before the star fell, she was chafing against the strictures of her society; unlike her pious sister, she had no patience for learning religious dogma by route, but would rather be out and doing, held back by a society that gave little room for girls to do so. She's a direct sort of person, saying what she thinks even when she shouldn't, and that doesn't exactly go over so well with the priests and their soldiers. Basically, she's in a situation way over her head, that's she's not tremendously equipped to deal with. And to add to the complications of her situation, she's fallen hard for one of the foreign soldiers in a very believable teenage crush sort of way (with indications that it might turn into more).
We see the events of the story unfolding as Hadara does, and this both strengthens the story and limits it. The material details of her world are clear and vivid, and the religion is well-developed, but her somewhat insular upbringing and limited point of view can be frustrating The presence of two non-human races in her world is something she takes for granted, for instance, but it takes the reader by surprise, and the nuances and backstory of this part of the world is never, in this first book, fully explored. And perhaps because (at least this is my impression of her) Hadara doesn't have the character or education to understand religious/political machinations and manipulations, there was a frustrating sense that lots was happening that the reader wasn't getting told. And the focus on Hadara's day by day experiences, though it did bring her vividly to life, meant that the pacing was somewhat slow--the action and tension are at times overshadowed by her introspection and mundane reality. So it won't be to everyone's taste.
That being said, since I enjoy tight character focus, and since I was fascinated by the religion that shapes Hadara's world, and since I was hooked on the mystery of the space thing, I myself was not slowed down in my reading, but turned the pages briskly and with enjoyment. Even though I wanted to shake Hadara occasionally, or draw her attention to things I wanted her to be thinking more about, I enjoyed spending time with her and look forward to her continued adventures! (and I think readers who are themselves teenage girls will not have the wanting to shake her thing but will simply be able to relate very strongly with her).
And now comes the part where I have to stick a label on this post--part of me says science fiction, because this feels like a "planet with alien races" such as one finds in sci fi, but another part says it has to be fantasy, because the magic of the god Nihil actually is real. So I guess I have to go with both...
disclaimer: not only did I receive a review copy from the publisher, but I consider Anne a friend, having met her in real life and worked with her for several years on the Cybils Awards (which she founded), and I tried hard not to let this affect my review of her book.