Nicole Murphy

Dream of Asarlai, Book 1

HarperVoyager

ISBN: 9780732 291617

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

Secret Ones is the first novel in the Dream of Asarlai trilogy. Although there is a whacking great loose end in the novel, to serve the plot which runs through the three novels, there is also a complete story in this volume. The result is a satisfying read which nevertheless will leave many readers looking forward to the next instalment.

Initially I found it difficult to get into the novel, largely because the first half a dozen pages consisted of a prologue written in a style I loathe. The second sentence began “The woman who called herself Asarlai…” – I dislike the technique of having a character call themselves by a different name purely to keep the reader in the dark about who they really are. And that seems to be the only reason she calls herself Asarlai – no other reason is ever revealed. In addition, these first few pages seemed melodramatic to me and I found it very hard to engage with the story.

Fortunately, after those first few pages the style changed and the novel improved dramatically. For most of the novel Murphy uses a colloquial, engaging tone that draws the reader in and provides an absorbing narrative to keep you interested.

Maggie Shaunessy is a member of a secret race called the gadda. The gadda are scattered all over the world in small enclaves; magic users, many of them prefer to stay isolated from humans. They all want to ensure that they remain secret and that humans never know they exist. As the novel opens, Maggie is celebrating having achieved her Masters of Education at a human university in Ireland. Shortly afterwards, however, that very achievement gets her banished to Australia for two years. Living in the human world will place considerable limits on her ability to use her power without endangering the secret, and she’s banned from contact with any gadda other than her immediate family.

Within days she meets the physicist Lucas Valeroso, recruited to undertake research at her grandfather’s university. Lucas is gadda, unaware of it until now; Maggie, strongly attracted to the handsome Lucas, has more than one motive for helping him to unlock his power.

And meanwhile, back in Ireland, a powerful artifact has been stolen and it appears that dark magic is being unleashed in the service of the thief’s ambition. The gadda Guardians are in a desperate race to find the Forbidden Texts before it’s too late, and Maggie and her family find themselves caught up in the search.

The majority of Murphy’s characters are strong and well realized, and you’ll find it easy to empathise with them and take an interest in their lives. I did initially raise an eyebrow at Lucas’ reaction to blackmail by someone from his past – the reaction didn’t seem appropriate for someone with his violent past. However, as more was revealed about Lucas and about his past, it seemed more credible.

The core relationships in this novel are those between Maggie and Lucas and Maggie and her best friend Ione. These relationships are vivid and convincing; Maggie and Ione sound like women who’ve been friends for years – their dialogue in particular has a very familiar ring to this female reviewer. Their support for each other, while not preventing them from needling the other sometimes, was very real. The sparks between Maggie and Lucas, and the growing relationship between them, was also depicted vividly. Readers who are a bit wary of “romantic” plots are likely to find that this appeals anyway; it’s warm and passionate without being soppy.

Despite the plot thread following the Forbidden Texts and the dreadful things they could provoke – plus a passing look at terrorism – this novel doesn’t have a particularly hard edge. Readers of gritty crime or thrillers may find this aspect of the novel a touch soft for their liking – I didn’t feel that these aspects had much emotional impact. They are, however, peripheral to Murphy’s main interests and plot.

I had some difficulties with the novel, largely around plotting issues. They’re relatively minor issues, and many people will find it easy enough to ignore them, but they bothered me. Most notably, I really struggled to find the reason for Maggie’s banishment to Australia believable. She is banished because as part of her Masters of Education, she wrote a children’s story about magic, and it is considered that there’s a risk people will now associate her with magic, and this might somehow expose the gadda. Everyone seems to agree this was a fairly heinous crime; even Maggie thinks she’s gotten off lightly with two years banishment. But I found this truly difficult to swallow. With the proportion of children’s literature that includes magic or other fantastical elements, they’re really afraid of one unpublished story? It didn’t ring true to me.

Connected to that was the apparently passive acceptance by most of the gadda of the rules and restrictions on their lives. I found it hard to imagine there not being more objections to this level of control, particularly from the younger gadda. Granted, Murphy is showing us only one small segment of gadda society, but the clear message is that this is how the entire society operates – and it was a little hard for me to believe.

Despite some flaws, this was a novel that proved absorbing after the first few pages. It isn’t a particularly dense novel, and I flew through it, helped by easygoing prose, empathetic characters and an interesting plot. I don’t usually particularly enjoy novels with an emphasis on the romantic plot, but I found this easy to read and appreciate. Murphy’s style means the novel is likely to prove enjoyable to quite a wide audience, including some who might find the blurb not to their taste. This is recommended as a pleasant and light read.