A ranger is made, not born. A ranger doesn't give in, or give out. -- Nini Mo
We'll start with a bit from Flora herself:
So there are four great Houses in the City of Califa, and every one of them but Crackpot Hall has a magickal Butler. At Saeta house, your hat is taken by Furfur's floaty hands. At Sanctuary School, Archangel Bob wafts through the hallways, his red wings fluttering blanketlike behind him, and not one mote of dust or one smudge of dirt escapes his eye. Bilskinir House is closed now, since the Hadraada family died out years ago, but they say Paimon is there still, waiting for a family that will never come home again.
And then there is our house, Crackpot Hall.
At Crackpot Hall I take your hat, and I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to watch out for dust motes, and I make sure the lamps are lit at night. No Butler, just me, Flora Nemain Fyrdraaca ov Fyrdraaca, last on the Fyrdraaca family list, slaving away at endless chores that should be done by our Butler. But thanks to Mamma, we don't have a Butler anymore.
It's a few weeks before Flora's fourteenth birthday, and she's been halfheartedly preparing for her Catorcena -- the traditional Coming Of Age. She explains:
For some kids, this is the highlight of their lives, maybe the only time they get to see the Warlord in his courtly glory (you can see the Warlord propping up a bar South of the Slot any old time you care to look), the only time they have a fancy party at which no one looks anywhere but at them, the only time they get huge gifties.
But Flora doesn't really care about any of that. And she isn't looking forward to adulthood, because for a Fyrdraaca, adulthood doesn't mean independence. It means enlisting. Her mother is the Commanding General of the Army of Califa, also known as the Rock of Califa. Fyrdraacas have always been soldiers, and that's what is expected of Flora.
Flora doesn't want to be a soldier. She doesn't want magick to be forbidden to her. She doesn't want to be taught to be "a killer, a servant, a slave". She doesn't want to end up like her father, tortured into madness during the war.
She wants to be a ranger, like her hero Nini Mo. When the war with the il Empire ended fourteen years ago, part of the peace accord required that the Ranger Corps be disbanded. The rangers were all either arrested or killed. But Flora believes that there must have been survivors. Even if there weren't, though, she is willing to be a ranger on her own.
You haven't forgotten the banished Butler, have you? Because, of course, Flora finds him. And so begins the adventure.
Flora Segunda takes place in the most interesting world I've read about in some time. Everything about it -- the politics and the history, the magic system, the language and culture. The language and culture especially -- it's a strange mixture of modern and old-fashioned-y and fantasy/other. There are references to Springheeled Jack and the Jabberwocky*, yet at one point Udo gives Flora a 'triple-dog dare' and at another he says, "This totally sucks!" There is a complicated system of manners that involves the exchanging of courtesies** and a common oath/insult is "pigface". It's an odd mixture, but it really works.
Even if the book had taken place ONLY in Crackpot Hall, I would have found it irresistible -- because how in the world do you resist a house that includes: the Formerly Secret Cubbyhole (because it can't be a secret if you know where it is), the Hallway of Laborious Desire, the Garterobe of Resolution, and the Door of Delectable Desires? (Not surprising, as I've always loved the house-wandering parts of The Secret Garden.)
It's so different and new that I can't think of any read-alikes. There are magical situations that Diana Wynne Jones fans will appreciate for their complexity, and the decayed grandeur of Crackpot Hall made me think of Gormenghast***, but other than that, I'm at a loss. Twists, turns, the Oatmeal Word and a man known as The Dainty Pirate. How can you go wrong?
Oh, AND. I'd like to complement Harcourt on the cover illustration and design -- the girl in the picture actually looks plump and disheveled, as she should.
Thankfully, a sequel is in the works****. I'd have been so sad to fall in love with this world and its inhabitants only to discover that there wouldn't be MORE.
*At least, I assume it was a reference. Flora describes something (it'd be a spoiler if I told you what!) as having "claws that catch, jaws that bite". The line is reversed, but close enough to recognize.
**Courtesies include: So Below Me I Hardly Bother; Respect to an Elder; Meeting as Equals, but Me Slightly Above; Before You and Better; Graciously Submitting before an Equal; I Serve You At My Own Discretion; Abasement before a Superior So Superior That No Abasement is Abased Enough.
****Via Her Royal Coolness, Gwenda Bond.