This is an excellent fantasy series to gift under the tree. All of them, wrapped tightly together and put in a cardboard box, would make a strangely heavy gift, sure to keep box-shakers occupied in the days leading up to the holiday! It'll also keep them reading -- for a few days at least! -- over the holiday break.
Book 1: Keeper of the Lost Cities. 12-year-old Sophie Foster learns from 13-year-old Fitz that she's not human, she's an elf, and moreover, an elf designed by the Black Swan to be...well, amazing? She's got all kinds of "abilities" that most of her peers can only dream of, and maybe that explains why she's always felt like the odd person -- um, elf -- out. She gives up her human family and struggles with her adoptive elf ones, who aren't sure they're ready for the litany of disastrous, possibly fatal, escapades she has. The worst of which is being kidnapped, not by her creators, the Black Swan, but by a shadowy other group, that's using portals in the human world (the "Lost" cities) to keep one step ahead of the elven authorities. Will she and her best friend, Dex, make it out alive?
Book 2: Exile. No, Sophie isn't exiled in this one. Instead she learns she's part...alicorn, like Silveny, the alicorn she captures and has to desensitize to elven touch and to living confined in the elves' Sanctuary. It explains how she can teleport and why she has a horse's brown eyes. (I wasn't sure I liked that, at all. I'm rather proud of my brown eyes.)
It's supposed to be a huge honor. The elves believe in keeping every creature, from every time period, even the fantastical ones, alive. They don't want any of them to ever die out. They can even train T-Rexes to eat veggies (um...just no). Prior to this, the elves only had one alicorn -- a male. Silveny is a female. Can anyone say, "breeding program?" They'll "reset the timeline," if they produce foals.
In an attempt to learn more about her genetic design, Sophie goes with her protector-elf to Exile, to interview a former Elder who's keeping secrets from the Council. But her protector's mind shatters under the stress and strain of being reminded that a) he shattered the Elder's mind and b) he shattered the former Keeper's mind, Prentice, too. Sophie tries to save her protector and fails. She comes back keenly aware she's "damaged" in some way, gets migraines and fades way too fast from traveling on the light.
Only the Black Swan can save her...and then she can save her protector's mind. And maybe Prentice's, but the book doesn't get that far. After her genetic programming has been "reset," again, the kidnappers strike, but this time at Silveny.
Book 3: Everblaze SPOILER ALERT: This review takes up where the second book left off, so ...if you haven't read book 2, don't continue.
The Black Swan fixed Sophie's mind in the last book, "plugging" her vulnerability and closing her connection to Fritz.
This book starts with Sophie and Keefe, her empath friend and Fritz's BF, trying to teleport to visit Silveny, aka Glitter Butt the alicorn, in the Sanctuary.
Except she can't. She panics, and instead takes them to San Diego, to her house where she lived with her family, and finds a note from the Black Swan buried in a bottle: Wait for instructions and stick to the plan. It's decades old, and infuriating to Sophie, who still hasn't exactly worked out what "the plan" is.
They decide to head back to Keefe's house and jump on the light using his family's Leapmaster 10,000. Key here, pay attention: they run into Lord Cassius Sencen and his wife, Lady Gisela, Keefe's parents. Lord Cassius is his usual condescending self, but Lady Gisela has a bruise on her shoulder she tries (and fails) to hide. It will go unexplained until the ending twist.
Once at the Sanctuary, they learn Sophie can't telelport in, and it's one of Sanctuary's many protections. But they learn that Ogre footprints have been found around Silveny's pastures, and Silveny's acting like a skitty kitty. They quickly figure out why -- Greyfell, the only other male alicorn in existence (that they know of) -- is attacking her whenever she gets close.
Upon close inspection, Sophie finds an Ogre tracker in Silveny's tail.
When she gets home, and tries to raise the alarm about Ogre technology found in the impenetrable Sanctuary, she's largely ignored. Instead, the Council has decided they want her to heal Fintan -- the former council member and elder who called the Everblaze and whose mind Alden scrambled (and nearly lost his own).
Now that it's known she can heal shattered minds, her adoptive parents want her to heal their dead daughter's beau's mind -- Brant.
And she's still scheming to get back into Exile to heal Prentice's mind, as Sophie is convinced the "plan" Black Swan speaks of revolves around him.
It's an awful lot of mind healing for one 13-year-old to do.
In the interim, she continues as a student at Firefox, in telepathy lessons with Fitz but also now inflictor lessons with another council member in the Tower. She learns that if she can just trust Fitz, he can get into her mind -- again.
Which is key, because apparently the Council wants her and Fitz -- two teens -- together to heal Fintan. Of course, it all goes wrong, and Fintan ignites the Everblaze, incinerating council member Kenric and himself.
I won't spoil the ending, just know you learn who's in control of the rebellion, which Sophie comes to view as a terrorist group instead, and while you get a slightly better picture of the Black Swan, their plans are still not entirely clear.
Book 4: Neverseen This is number four in the installments of Sophie Foster's development as the (now 14-year-old -- elves count gestational time in their ages) "savior" of the elves. This time, the evil, greedy Ogres and the elven terrorists, the Neverseen, team up to spread a sickness among the gnomes and force the elves to capitulate, but of course, Sophie's there to make all the difference...
It's the second gnome plague in their history, with the first ending disastrously and under terms that are shrouded in secrecy Sophie must peel back and expose.
To do that, she, Keefe, Biana and Fitz, and Dex are all exiled to Exillium, the other-Foxfire school but for young, troublemaker and banished elves with forbidden powers, like pyrotechnics. They have to cover their faces, not go by their names, and there's a humiliating trial outside the gates to expose which part of the school they'll be placed in. But no matter how bad school is, at the end of every school day, they get to go home to exile in the treehouses of the Black Swan.
Keefe wrangles with his mother's involvement in the Neverseen and his father's actions to regain the Council's trust. Sophie unwisely withholds information from Keefe, multiple times, never learning any lessons in how to deal with Keefe's tender, young heart.
However, she's the only one of their bunch with empathy for those in Exillium, and manages to wrangle more resources for the teachers and students from the Council, which causes the Exilium folks to open up to her considerably, so she learns the identity of the elven boy who first visited her in the the real world.
She also discovers Glitter Butt, Silveny the alicorn, is preggers and may fulfill her role salvaging the elven timeline.
This one features a seeming-betrayal (although I wasn't convinced; it felt more like a set-up for a mole inside the Neverseen), and the plague cure comes at a sacrifice, but I won't spoil the read and say who/ what.
Another intricately plotted work for several hours of good reading!
Book 5: Lodestar So, by this point in the series, even a casual reader notices these books tend to follow a formula. Each new book is a new challenge to the elven kingdom that Sophie is at the center of solving. She fails to see the damage about to be done (hey, she's 14!). An ancillary character dies, for emotional impact (Kenric, Calla, no I won't say who dies in this one, because it might be a reason you keep reading!). And the last chapter lays the groundwork to move on to the next book / problem for Sophie to solve.
This one's about how Sophie and gang (still caught in love triangle with Fritz and Keefe) figure out how the Neverseen travel using starstones and a techno-shade-magic device that displays a lodestar, or pattern the kids decipher, to specific locations.
Keefe has "infiltrated" the Neverseen, to learn their secrets and funnel info to Sophie and gang. He's also still learning and obsessing about what his mother did to him, and how he / or his blood's at the center of the Neverseen's Lodestar project. Sophie reaches him telepathically every night, to check on him, make sure he's okay, and he passes her info.
He's able to forestall several attacks this way, but on key ones Keefe misses the mark. The biggest, and final reveal, I hate to say (I will not spoil!), I saw immediately. It was a several-ton elephant in the room everyone just conveniently forgot was there, and I found that really hard to believe. The author throws a lot of other plot points and twists at the reader to obfuscate it, but it was there, looming, and I think that's why I burned out on this one.
They are able to thwart the Ogres' attacks on Silveny and Sophie's adopted parents. The Ogre king agrees to negotiate a peace. The peace talks become the center of the conflict, and are actually a well-laid plan by the nefarious Neverseen to free Gethen and bring down... no, I won't spoil it. Sophie isn't able to save everyone.
I finished this one, but I'm going to bow out of this series here. While I recommend the series, overall, and I'm giving this one five stars, as I do all books that are age-appropriate, well-plotted, well-edited, creative, etc., I'm done. It's still quite an achievement to write several 500+ page books like this, and for Messenger's fans, I get why you keep reading. I'm just not feeling it, so it's best to bow out and not get negative. Enjoy!