Havenfall is a delightful mix of traditional and contemporary fantasy

Photo: Havenfall by Sara Holland.. Image Courtesy Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Photo: Havenfall by Sara Holland.. Image Courtesy Bloomsbury Children’s Books /

Sara Holland’s Havenfall mixes contemporary and traditional fantasy in an entertaining tale about a magical inn that guards doorways to other worlds.

Author Sara Holland follows up her Everless duology – a story of class strife played out in a fantasy world in which time is a currency drawn from human blood and traded away by the poor for the necessities of living – with a more contemporary tale. Sort of.

Havenfall may feature a modern day setting, with plenty of recognizable real-world elements, but its also a deeply fantastical tale that includes everything from magic and alternate realities, to shapeshifters and elementals.

In the town of Havenfall near the Rocky Mountains, there is an Inn. And in that Inn, there are doorways. These doorways lead to other worlds. The Inn itself is a neutral zone, sworn to provide a safe haven for anyone from any of the Adjacent Realms. And every summer, delegates from these lands arrive in our world, charged with revising and renewing the peace agreement between them all. This is the way it has been for generations, through good times and bad, even when a fourth realm was cast out from the others. The Inn remains. And so does its purpose.

Teenager Maddie Morrow has always loved visiting her uncle Marcus at Havenfall. An outsider in the real world, she’s always felt accepted among the strange visitors from other realms – and the trip provides much-needed distraction from her broken family life, where her mother currently sits on death row. There, she gets to flirt with a handsome Fiordenkill boy named Brekken and plot ways to convince her uncle to name her as his successor as Innkeeper when he steps down. In terms of summer vacations, it’s got a lot to recommend it.

But when Uncle Marcus falls ill, and Maddie must step up to try and fill his shoes, she learns that there are darker forces at work in Havenfall than she ever imagined.

Havenfall the novel does its best to balance Maddie’s personal journey with the story of the Inn itself, as well as the tenuous balance that must be struck between each of the other Adjacent Realms. Because Marcus appears to have been attacked by a Solarian, a member of a banished race, who shouldn’t be at Havenfall at all. Is the Inn under attack? Are the magical seals between Earth and the forbidden land breaking? And who’s behind it all?

In the wake of all this chaos, Maddie must safeguard the remaining delegates and see that the Accords are reaffirmed all while trying to investigate what, precisely, was behind the attack on her uncle, and continues to harm other guests. To do so, she has to join forces with a variety of potentially untrustworthy people, including an ancient and magical prince, an alluring new Havenfall staffer with plenty of secrets, and a rich, secluded heiress. As her investigation continues, Maddie stumbles upon old enemies and new threats, and plenty of twists and turns reveal themselves along the way.

Some of these twists will feel predictable to fantasy fans familiar with many of the genre’s favorite tropes. And sure, there are looming hints of a love triangle toward the end of the novel, which may or may not resolve itself in the sequel. But, for the most part, Havenfall feels like a pretty fresh take in an industry where most YA fantasies involve lost princesses or girls discovering their latent magical abilities.

Instead, Maddie must solve all these problems and try to save the day while being just an ordinary everyday human girl in the midst of an array of magical beings and strange creatures. And as her story continues, she learns that many of the things – and people – she’d always believed in – aren’t exactly who she’d always believed them to be. Her journey is occasionally a frustrating one – this isn’t a character who has a lot of self-confidence and she doubts herself constantly – but in a world where there are doors to other worlds, it also feels painfully realistic. Who among us would have been ready to help decide the fate of entire realities as a teen? And yet that’s what Maddie attempts to take on, with humor and bravery.

(For all her flaws, I love this character. Havenfall is the rare story in which we actually get to see our lead heroine develop and grow, through sometimes very difficult moments.)

Since Havenfall is the first half of a duology, the multiple twists and surprises toward the end of the novel are clearly present to set up for a sequel, and will leave you with many questions about where the story goes from here. That said, they’re also questions you’ll want to know the answers to – involving everything from Maddie’s love life to the existence of an illicit magic smuggling ring. But we’ll have to wait until next year to see what happens next.

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Havenfall is available everywhere now.