I just finished The City in the Lake by Rachel Neumeier and while the cover only gets a B minus, the book gets a solid A plus. In the mood for fantasy? Try this novel about a kingdom torn apart when its prince, "the heart of the kingdom," seemingly vanishes into thin air. In the wake of Cassiel's disappearance, suspicion turns on Lord Neill, or Lord Bastard as he is also known. The first son of the king, Lord Neill is not heir to the throne since his mother was a wanderer, an unknown entity, a terrifying woman whose reappearance introduces the reader to one of the most chilling villains they are likely to encounter in fiction. While Lord Neill tries to find his brother--and then the King when the King also vanishes, from inside his locked and guarded chamber--a second plotline unfolds featuring the seventeen-year-old daughter of a mage who has trained his progeny in the art of magic. When a sudden blight of still births falls over the land, the mage ventures to the City to find answers, warning his daughter, Timou, not to follow him. But after her father fails to return, Timou disregards his warning, leaving a burgeoning love affair behind in order to find her father. . . and also, she hopes, her mother, a mysterious woman about whom Timou has been told nothing.
The magic in this book is unlike most of the fantasy I have read before. I loved the scenes in which Timou blends into light or sends herself down the edge of a sword blade, becoming one with the sword rather than being run through with the sword. The scenes in which Timou is venturing through an enchanted forest and later when she enters the City in the Lake (the perfected reflection if not the mirror image of the City itself) are greatly satisfying. And the villains in this tale are wonderfully chilling. In addition to an evil sorceress who forces Lord Neill to hold a burning coal in his hand while turning others into stone, the reader is introduced to Lord Hunter, a dark being of terrible power, and an unsettling snake, whose form changes as often as Timou encounters it.
This is a very satisfying fantasy novel, and with both female and male main characters is a good choice for either gender.