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Book Review: Ondine: The Autumn Palace by Ebony McKenna

autumn palace ondine ebony mckenna Book Review: Ondine: The Autumn Palace by Ebony McKenna

Update: a cut scene from this book can be found on Ebony McKennas blog. Enjoy!

Last year I read and enjoyed Ebony McKennas whimsical, dreamy debut'Ondine: Summer of Shambles, and was delighted when the second in the series landed on my desk. What made Ondine'so utterly enjoyable in my mind was its charming mix of nostalgia, magic, absurd pop culture references and, well, talking ferrets, and the follow up offers more of the same, but in an even stronger and more delightful package.

Ondine and her lover Hamish, a lovely chap who boasts a Scottish brogue and the unfortunate habit of turning into a ferret, were clearly dreaming when they hoped that their previous adventuresinvolving attempted regicide, familial double-crossings and morewere long behind them. Unfortunately, their summer of sweet nothings and laziness promptly turns into a Serious Mission, with Hamish being recruited by the Duke to help, er, ferret out a possible assassin whom he suspects has it in for him. Ondine tags along with him to the Dukes Autumn Palace, but finds herself with a rather less MIB-style job. Rather than spying and stalking, she instead spends her days getting red wine stains out of laundry and generally being berated by all around her.

However, being the sharp lass that she is, and with her impeccable tea-steeping skills, Ondine catches the interest of the Infanta Anathea, and is brought on as her personal assistant. Though the very idea of working for the Infanta initially terrifies Ondine, who suspects that a better name for her might be the Enfanta Terrible, Ondine slowly begins to warm to her new boss, realising that theres more to the woman than she first suspected. The only issue is that Hamish thinks the samebut that its not a depth of personality thats to blame, but rather a murderous intent.

As much as I revelled in the silliness and whimsy of the first in this series, its undeniable that The Autumn Palace'demonstrates substantial growth from McKenna, who has overcome many of the issues of the first booka slightly meandering plot and an unclear audience. Though ripe with all of the shenanigans and hilarity of its predecessor, The Autumn Palace'has a strong, if simple, plot that keeps pressing forward, and though its driven largely by the mischievous escapades of the characters (believe me, a Scotsman who regularly turns into a ferret can get up to all sorts of mischief) feel impressively organic rather than plotted.

Ondine also demonstrates increasing maturity in this novel, which helps to endear her more to the reader, and which slots this novel more into to the YA reader age group, rather than in that awkward Venn overlap between MG and YA. Now that the chase aspect of her romance is complete, and she has her spunky guy, she has to reflect on her expectations of that relationship and whether what she wants is viable or reasonable. With Hamish spending more time with the Duke and so evidently loving his work, he has less time for Ondine, and for Ondine, who had initially conceived of her relationship as non-stop cuddles and walks in the park, this is a challenge. Ondine is also put in the position where she has information that will help Hamish in his Spy Guy mission, but that would also incriminate someone else she cares about, and this is a test of not just loyalty, but also Ondines character, and McKenna works through it beautifully whilst still keeping the tone light and friendly.

On the subject of the romance, though, I have to say that its a delight to see a YA novel where the romance isnt'the overriding plot, and where the romance doesnt require vast, self-sacrificing demands. Better yet, its wonderful to see a male character who isnt brooding, antagonising or alpha-male in tone, and whose loyalty isnt up for debate. I applaud McKenna on not opting for the age-old love triangle in order to raise the stakes, but letting other aspects of the plot do this instead. Hamish and Ondine are delightfully in love (indeed, I do believe the phrase lovely kisses is used several hundred times in this book), and its such a pleasure to read about a healthy relationship where the feelings of both parties are reciprocated and respected.

Of course, I cant end without mentioning McKennas made-up country of Brugel, a former Soviet State-meets-Grimms-Fairytales type thing where magic abounds and no one has ever won Eurovision (despite much trying). Her approach to world-building is tongue-in-cheek and self-aware, and there are a good number of instances where Brugel is contrasted with McKennas native Melbourne and Australia to great effect: though this may seem counterintuitive, this approach helps to anchor her imagined country in the real world. Many of the world-building gems can be found in the kooky footnotes that are sprinkled throughout the novel, and I admit to dog-earing my copy (I know, naughty me) in many places so that I could read these out to my poor long-suffering fiance. Possibly my favourite: chotskys are apparently figurines that look like Trotskys, a riff on tsotchkes and the poor ol Marxist revolutionary who got pickaxed.

Ondine: the Autumn Palace'is rich, silly and very, very charming, and if youre after a fairytale where your hero and heroine are actually equals (assuming ferrets are equal in the eye of the law), then youll enjoy this immensely.

Rating: star Book Review: Ondine: The Autumn Palace by Ebony McKennastar Book Review: Ondine: The Autumn Palace by Ebony McKennastar Book Review: Ondine: The Autumn Palace by Ebony McKennastar Book Review: Ondine: The Autumn Palace by Ebony McKennablankstar Book Review: Ondine: The Autumn Palace by Ebony McKenna (excellent)

With thanks to Hardie Grant Egmont for the review copy

This book was read as part of the Australian Women Writers 2012 challenge

See our other reviews of Ebony McKennas work

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Also by Ebony McKenna:

Ondine The Summer of Shambles by Ebony McKenna Book Review: Ondine: The Autumn Palace by Ebony McKenna


  1. This series looks interesting. Yet another book I have to check out. Id be upset, but I love all your recommendations! :D

  2. Stephanie /

    Ive read some excellent YA this year (yes, *another* 4-star reviewI must be getting soft in my old age). :) This ones so sweet, and Ive been so frustrated with the relationships Ive been reading about in YA recently that its so lovely to read something depicting a healthy, safe relationship.

  3. Sounds like a lovely read Stephanie, and welcome to the challenge!

    Shelleyrae @ Bookd Out

  4. Stephanie /

    Thanks, Shelleyrae :) I have another AWW2012 book to review tomorrow, but then Id better get reading!

  5. Thank you so very much for the review, especially the comment about love triangles.

    As a reader, I fall for the romance of the first novel and absolutely believe the couple are made for each other. It can feel like a slap in the face to reach book two and find theres someone else in the next book. It can make the character unsympathetic as she vacillates between the two.

    There is a rule that once the love/tension is resolved, the story falls flat. (At which point people quote the TV series Moonlighting.) I wanted to break that rule and show its possible to be madly in love and still have an adventure.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Ebony. Im delighted to hear your perspective on love triangles, and completely agree. Love triangles certainly raise the stakes and increase tension, but they do so at the risk of alienating the reader and tearing apart the emotions theyve invested in a main character, and I think they can be very divisive in terms of a readership.

      So much of what I adore about Ondine is that there are two characters who are very much in love, but who arent defined by their romance, and who can stick together and support each other throughout whatever else theyre going through. (Oh how Id love to see this in a chick lit novel one of these days!) :)