As much as I have loved some of the sequels out this year, Under Earth may just take the crown as the best, like Godfather Part II, Empire Strikes Back level greatness.
Why? Because this book doubles down on all the wonderstuff from Storm Witch and certainly doesn’t disappoint.
But most importantly it made me feel like a kid again, like I was in right beside Storm amid the hot dusty air of the island and the warm moonlit inky nights of peril, drama and Storm channelling superhero level weather witchcraft- this set off fireworks in my heart and itching in my fingertips for the magic.
At the end of Storm Witch we left Storm, grieving and troubled by the attack on Yanlin, stripped of her gender and shorn of her plaits about to accompany and protect the men on a long voyage across the sea to trade.
We pick up the story roughly 2 weeks into the voyage when Storm has already tested her mettle using Air to blow enemies off course, but not defeated.
With her childhood friend Cloud’s disapproval staining her confidence they sail into the belly of the beast that is Bellum Island, the centre of the trading world of Storm’s people- it’s rulers know a Weather Witch is coming, and want to keep her for political gain.
Whilst in the hospitality of Talon and his spoilt ambitious daughter Betaan, Storm begins to see through the shiny veneer of Bellum Town and discovers a Island Of anger and injustice, the islanders stripped of the Calling and it’s purpose, controlled and enslaved by the Fifteen Families who rule with gossip and treachery the currency.
But Storm isn’t just battling political machinations to control her gifts, the Salamander himself has sent a foe to destroy her causing Elemental witches to gather to warn Storm of troubles ahead.
She sat at the back of the long rowing boat, behind her uncle, watching Bellum Town grow closer with each heave of the oarsmen. The sun’s heat was already scorching, and she welcomed the spray that splashed over the bow. The Pact Leaders, waiting on the pier looked like brightly painted dolls.
Ok so I really enjoyed Storm Witch but Under Earth was just jawdroppingly amazing. The pace was fast and the peril intensely built, I was swept away to this tropical world of dusty streets and unforgiving heat where tempers are simmering under the surface through a complicated dance of niceties and the rising panic to escape a thrumming heartbeat.
And the battles, oh the battles… the crackling energy of Storm as she calls upon the elements to her aid, and what she channels through fear and anger is electrifyingly exciting especially a growing connection with Earth/The Tortoise.
Where Storm Witch undulated as Storm discovers her fate and talents, Under Earth thunders with longing and urgency.
Betaan grabbed Storms hands, eyes large and pleading. “Stay with us. Live as we do. Be whomever you like. Enjoy your life. You did not ask to be a Weather-Witch, so why should you suffer for the actions of the Elemental spirits?”
The machinations Of Talor and the Pact pride on the ability to persuade Storm to stay by offering her back her femininity and wealth beyond her imagination. The loss of her identity as a female was a cruel one to Storm as she has had not just the choice but the prospect itself of family life stripped from her to serve her people and she is reeling from this loss.
Her vulnerability and aching hope at the news she would be permitted to be female on Bellum and the wobbly sense of worth, identity and belonging when confronted with expensive and beautiful female clothing is tough reading and we hope and ache for her too as she tries to stick to the reasoning of her people for ripping her gender from her.
She hesitated, heart hammering with eagerness. “Is it really true? Your people would accept a female Weather-Witch?”
Whilst there is rich discussion opportunities for considering gender & identity there is a seam to be mined for identity and the teenage experience as we also see Storm troubled by the knowing that Betaan and Mer aren’t really her friends but desperately wanting to believe she COULD have female friends. That feeling may well resonate with many young readers who don’t fit into the neat boxes children & teenagers try to cram each other into.
Furthermore the blinkers of childhood traditions, indoctrinated beliefs and ‘tales’ begin to wobble and slip as is expected at Storms age, but these ones have world changing consequences.
The apparition floated over her head, just out of reach. She could smell the mossy faint of the fountain, see the water swirling and shifting, contained by a magic skin. The Dolphin caught her eye and grinned.
And the Magic is just wonderful, from the whispers of the Elemental witches to the shows of power, to sun-tea in a garden the witches of Under Earth are richly imagined and brought to life with colour and vibrancy.
The Chosen One plot line steps up a gear and becomes more twisty and urgent in a Under Earth with the constant and intense threat, yet still so much is hidden, with Renner playing a clever game revealing just enough to reel you in without showing her entire hand.
The ending left me breathless and desperate for the next instalment in Storms story.
Under Earth by Ellen Renner is published by Nosy Crow and published in the UK on the 1st August.
Huge thanks to Nosy Crow for the early copy!!