I like historical fantasy novels a lot, and so this one – drawing heavily on various 19th century novels, including the works of Jane Austen, The Turn of the Screw, and Jane Eyre – seemed an ideal fit, especially given a rather charming writing style that draws on the style of works from the period, while still moving fairly quickly for the modern reader. Unlike other reviewers, I don’t take issue with how heavily this novel draws from its sources, which are at least varied, and it seems to me there’s plenty from the author’s own imagination here. (Any claim that any of the male characters resemble Mr. Darcy, in personality or situation or plot function, is absurd.) Unfortunately, too many plot elements are contrived or stupid or rely on characters being stupid, and there’s some serious dissonance between where the book seems to think our sympathies ought to go, and where mine actually went.
Warning: spoilers below, so read at your own risk!
The book follows three protagonists. Ivy, the most prominent, is clearly based on a combination of Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood; she’s the sensible young woman who keeps her household running in spite of her silly mother, unworldly younger sisters, and a father who seems to have gone insane from magical causes and spends his days in the attic muttering to himself. Rafferdy is the frivolous elder son of a lord, who does his best to bury any sense of responsibility he may have in fashion and parties. Eldyn, Rafferdy’s friend, is a young man who has fallen into poverty and wants to restore his family’s fortunes. Eldyn doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the story, which is perhaps fortunate because he’s both an idiot who falls for obvious scams and refuses for no apparent reason to consider using the magical talent he clearly has, and an asshole who leaves his younger sister locked up alone all day, then when he returns and she begs him to take her out, leaves to go carousing by himself instead. And yet it appears we’re supposed to sympathize with him.
The plot moves somewhat slowly, as you’d expect for period fantasy. The first third sets up some magical troubles while following the characters through the not!London social scene. The second part switches to the first person and follows Ivy’s adventures as a governess at a remote estate; this part is a bit creepy, the influence of The Turn of the Screw obvious even to me (who hasn’t read it), with shades of Jane Eyre and Rebecca. The third part returns to sharing time between the three protagonists and builds up to a magical confrontation. I did find the book to be entertaining reading throughout, with a polished style and a well-developed and varied setting. Its fictional country is clearly based on England, and the author has clearly done some research, touching on issues like the policy of enclosure that I wasn’t even aware of.
That said, it’s riddled with plot holes. The whole existence of Part 2 depends on Ivy apparently forgetting a major revelation in Part 1: on visiting her father’s house, she learns that it can’t be opened, despite the fact that numerous magicians have tried, and not only that, when she tries a mysterious masked man appears, temporarily paralyzes her, and warns her that opening the house would bring great evil into the world. Then on a change in the family fortunes, she blithely sets out to work a few months as a governess to save up for the family’s moving costs to that very house. Um…? Some never-mentioned memory charm must have been worked on the girl, since she then proceeds to learn that she’s adopted, but never mentions or thinks of it again once reunited with her (now known to be adoptive) family.
Also really dumb: Ivy’s marrying a man who has consistently manipulated and withheld information from her for his own gain, despite her being warned by multiple people. The masked man providing Ivy with only the most cryptic possible information despite the fate of the world supposedly being at stake. At a crucial moment, when time is of the essence, he appears only to tell Ivy to go home, causing her to lose precious time as she rushes off to read a conveniently-timed letter informing her of a certain person’s villainy – if the masked man cares about the fate of the world, why didn’t he just tell her? The character who’s revealed to be a villain showing up for no reason but to helpfully confirm that he in fact is villainous, then promptly leaving. Ivy not having the sense to ask her two young charges alone and with any modicum of patience about the disturbing things they’ve been seeing and clearly want to talk about.
Then there’s the weirdness about whom we’re supposed to be rooting for. Eldyn is presented as a victim but acts like a douche. Mr. Quent is presented as a Mr. Rochester, while exposing the unconsenting Ivy to dangers far more serious than a hidden first wife – and all while Ivy has a better romantic alternative. You can tell from the title who she marries anyway. In the macro plot, we’re first presented with a world in which the rich and powerful are perpetrating great injustice… only to see the rebels demonized and our heroes inexplicably siding with the status quo. I felt more sympathy for the rebels.
So, although I had high hopes for this at the beginning, I doubt I’ll read the sequels. It’s good mindless fun, though, if you’re looking for a fantasy beach read.