Vivid YA fantasy ‘Mortal Sight’ throws teen into a world of monsters and magic

In Sandra Fernandez Rhoads’ debut novel, “Mortal Sight” (Enclave Publishing), Cera Marlowe finds herself in a supernatural world tortured by bloodthirsty, shape-shifting beasts that only she can see — or smell — or even imagine. But it’s here in this mess of monsters and magic that 17-year-old Cera begins to understand herself and the tangle her life has been.

We meet Cera on a typical autumn day as she collects the freckled little neighbor kid off the front stoop to walk her to school. Cera is solicitous, kind and helpful; the bond between the two girls is fine. The little girl twists her fingers into Cera’s warm hand as they walk.

But Cera feels unsettled. There’s something she doesn’t like, and she wants it to stop. She’s plagued by panic attacks that terrify her and each one precipitates a hurry-up move to another town. Cera is home-schooled, lonely and determined to stay this time.

But the sky is bruise-colored and clouds are roiling and Cera anticipates another seizure, her own personal storm simmering.

RHOADS’S METICULOUSLY CRAFTED REVEAL

There are clues to Cera’s fate in the very first pages, but Rhoads is careful to tuck them in where readers won’t notice till later. Until it’s too late, and the first horrific scream takes us by surprise.

Cera learns about her connection to a dangerous netherworld as readers do, because Rhoads unravels the details delicately, Cera picking up the truth in fits and starts. Her mother, abandoned by her husband and desperate to protect her daughter, sketches hallucinatory landscapes and secrets them away. Cera’s seizures mean they must pack up and leave. Nothing makes sense to her.

When Cera was younger, she accepted their sudden, furtive moves; as a young woman, she wants a normal life. However, nothing has prepared her for what is going to be normal for her from now on.

She’s rescued from a pair of predatory and monstrous birds and spirited away by a shaggy-haired guitar player to a safe house in a bad part of town. An oxymoron, she thinks. On the way, she learns who — or more specifically, what — she is. “I thought you knew,” the shaggy-haired guitar player says and looks away.

WEAVING MILTON AND RENAISSANCE ART INTO FANTASY

The explanation is hard to believe and gets more complicated the longer she stays with the guitar player and his fellows in the safe house. For Cera, visions, music and cryptic messages decoded from Renaissance art and the poetry of John Milton all swirl together in a kind of pattern and reveal a history that helps explain the present.

Rhoads’s writing is vivid and clear, making fantastical adventures believable, almost palpable; and she threads together Cera’s ordinary teenage angst with self-preservation, fierce revenge and even first love.

It’s hard not to feel Cera’s confusion and loneliness. She’s angry and afraid but certain of her intentions. However, in the heat of battle with the monsters, Cera finds she is not even sure what side she’s on.

The last pages of “Mortal Sight” are an irresistible intro to Rhoads’s just-released follow-up in The Colliding Line series, “Realms of Light,” where Cera may be allowed to live another day.

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