Trial by Fire by Josephine Angelini

Genre: fantasy
Format read: audiobook
Content warnings: Abelism, poor rep for Native American, POC, and LGBT+ communities, misogony
Rep: Chronic illness
Series: Worldwalker vol 1
Rating: planchet-3

Lily is allergic to everything. At any given moment, she could break out in hives, throw up, pass out, or even have a seizure because of them. It’s so bad that it’s unclear if she’ll be able to graduate high school, as more and more of her time is spent in sterile hospitals going through round after round of useless tests and experimental treatments. But despite all of it, no one can figure out what is wrong with her or why her health continues to deteriorate.

With an ever shrinking circle of friends, an unstable family situation, and no future in front of of her, it’s somewhat understandable for a fight with her best-friend-turned-boyfriend to feel like the end of the world, to feel like she has nothing worth living for.

Until a tiny voice asks if she wants a way out–a way to another world.

And the voice is coming from inside her head.

In a flash Lily finds herself transported to an alternate reality, a parallel universe where the witches at Salem didn’t burn–they took over.

Now America–which isn’t even a country–has been abandoned by Europe. White settlers live in thirteen walled cities run by witches who use magic to provide transportation, food, medicine, and everything the people need.

Outside the walls, is chaos.

Wild beasts–magically bred–rule the forests. The only people brave enough to live outside the walls are those who can’t gain citizenship: the Outland peoples who have banded together to fight off the monsters and the witches alike. Originally made up of native tribes, the Outlanders have “adopted” anyone who has been exiled for fled from the cities.

Salem, the largest and most fear city, is ruled by Lilian, the most powerful witch in the thirteen cities, who runs things with an iron fist. But here’s the crazy part–Lilian and Lily are two flavors of the same person.

When she realizes her doppelganger has instigated murder and torture in the name of “purity” Lily makes a run for her life. Captured by Outlanders, it takes time to explain that not only is the not the evil queen, but she’s not even supposed to be in this universe. But there’s more; the resemblance between Lily and Lilian isn’t only skin deep. Lily also develops magical powers. According to Rowan, the handsome man training her, her constant fever and “allergies” are her body trying to channel the energy around her into magic, and failing due to lack of training.

Lilian put a price on their heads. If Lily wants to get home, she will have to help Rowan and the other Outlanders defeat Lilian in all-out war. And it still remains unclear why Lilian brought her otherworldly twin to this universe to begin with.

As you might have gathered from the summary, this book has a lot of aspects that are downright problematic, from the repeated use of “painted savages” for Outlanders, to the ableism in Lily’s illness being turned into an expression of her magic. While I can’t speak with authority on the latter, I have heard the majority of disabled people dislike it when their disability is used in this way, though I’ve also heard of some who find it empowering. It depends on how they identify with their particular illness or disability. Personally, having read similar takes on chronic illness and mental illness, it makes me uncomfortable.

This book made me so angry because despite the many problematic elements, I wanted to keep reading. I really enjoyed the story and the drama. At this point, I can’t say if the problematic bits are meant to be social commentary to point out problems in our society by driving them to an extreme, or if they are actually as problematic and socially blind as they appear.

I may need to read the second book to find out.

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