The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima
February 27, 2007; Hyperion
Before he knew about the Roses, 16-year-old Jack lived an unremarkable life in the small Ohio town of Trinity. Only the medicine he has to take daily and the thick scar above his heart set him apart from the other high-schoolers. Then one day Jack skips his medicine. Suddenly, he is stronger, fiercer, and more confident than ever before. And it feels great until he loses control of his own strength and nearly kills another player during soccer team tryouts. Soon, Jack learns the startling truth about himself: He is Weirlind; part of an underground society of magical people who live among us. At the head of this magical society sit the feuding houses of the Red Rose and the White Rose, whose power is determined by playing The Game. A magical tournament in which each house sponsors a warrior to fight to the death, The winning house ruling the Weir. As if his bizarre magical heritage isn't enough, Jack finds out that he s not just another member of Weirlind, he's one of the last of the warriors at a time when both houses are scouting for a player. Jack's performance on the soccer field has alerted the entire magical community to the fact that he's in Trinity. And until one of the houses is declared Jack's official sponsor, they'll stop at nothing to get Jack to fight for them. (courtesy of Goodreads)
Harry Potter lite. The Warrior Heir reminds me more of Harry Potter than anything else. You have a normal boy who finds out he's a wizard, strong friendships, significant adult characters, and a big fight. It is "lite," because it lacks the depth and subtext that makes Harry Potter stand out. Regardless, The Warrior Heir is good fun.
Cinda Williams Chima is a master at world building. With The Heir Chronicles series, she has created a world where wizards are at war with one another. Based mostly in England, rival clans have a tentative peace which they maintain by "fighting" each other in a game. Warriors, a person born with a warrior stone, are the wizards' pawns, raised to fight each other to the death in the clan tournaments. Warriors are hunted their entire lives - by clans seeking to train a warrior for the fight and by clans seeking to kill the other team's warrior. I loved reading about the history, politics, and the different magical powers of the Weirlind people.
The fantasy world is complex and quite confusing if you rely on what I wrote above, but Cinda does a fabulous job explaining it. The world is introduced gradually throughout the book. I never felt like there was an info dump but I also never felt so confused that I was irritated. It was the perfect mix between knowledge and mystery.
In general, the book was paced very well. Action scenes were spread throughout the story, each introducing Jack further into the Weirlind world. I also loved that there were lots of plot twists that left me dropping my jaw. You can guess the basics of the ending, but I was very surprised at how it got there.
Like Harry Potter, Jack is supported by his best friends, Will and Fitch, and has a maybe girlfriend Ellen. I was blase about their role in the book. It feels ubiquitous that a teenage adventure story has to be about a boy and his friends defeating evil. Why do friends have to tag along? Not that it's bad, but it feels like a formulaic rule. Jack's mother is totally clueless and is even more of a pawn than he is (typical cardboard, absentish parent). I did like his enchantress aunt Linda and his mentor Leander. Leander was a highlight of the book because you couldn't tell if he was good or evil.
My main problem with this book was Jack. He was a nice kid, but very flat. You could argue that Harry in Harry Potter is also a flat character. Unlike Ron and Hermione, who have well-defined personalities, Harry is more blank. Perhaps to make it easier for the reader to project themselves into his shoes. But unlike Jack, I loved Harry and came to understand the subtle nuances of his character. I never connected to Jack. And because I didn't care about Jack, in turn, I didn't believe the book. Despite the wonderful world building and my enjoyment of the story, I could never quite turn off the little voice in my head that says "This is nice, but it's just a book." A truly good fantasy adventure should totally engross the reader and make her forget that any other world exists. The Warrior Heir was a fun story and an outstanding debut, but doesn't rise to the level of truly special..