I received this novella from the author, in exchange for an honest review.
The two novels penned by Stephanie Burgis that I previously read – Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets – were both delightful finds, creating a very successful mix between historical events and magic-driven fantasy: not only were they enjoyable books, but they compelled me to search for more information on the history of the times chosen as background, so that I was able to learn details that were previously unknown to me, which is always a plus from my point of view.
You can therefore imagine how thrilled I was when Ms. Burgis contacted me to read and review the first of a series of novellas titled The Harwood Spellbook, set in an alternate Regency England, one where magic is quite commonplace. This historical period is one I enjoy reading about, since it brings back fond memories of the times I shared Georgette Heyer’s books with my mother, and the premise for Ms. Burgis’ setting sounded quite fascinating, so I did not waste any time in accepting.
England – here named Angland – is a country where humans, elves, trolls and other creatures coexist more or less in peace, mostly through treaties stipulated after the bloody wars of the past. The country is ruled by women through the Boudiccate (so named after Queen Boudicca, who in this alternate history did manage to overcome the Roman invaders), while men are tasked with the exercise of magic, relinquishing every political power to their wives, mothers, sisters and so on. The most amusing aspect of this social background comes from the overturned customs: men seem more inclined to gossip and trivial pursuits, while women deal with the responsibilities of government and the rule of the land.
Cassandra Harwood is a rule-breaker: to the chagrin of her mother, one of the Boudiccate’s more powerful members, she was never interested in politics, preferring to explore her potential for magic and therefore going against every social convention of the country. Her drive brought her to be accepted in the Great Library, the male academy teaching the finer points of magic, where she distinguished herself and where she met Wexham, a magician of equally strong powers and ultimately her fiancé. As the story starts, however, Cassandra is recovering from the effects of a spell she should never have tried alone, and as a consequence she is forbidden to practice any kind of magic: to do so would mean courting death.
Cassandra feels her life is all but over, and hardly tolerates the sympathy of friends and family members, seeing in it a veiled reproach for the unconventional life choices of the past: for this reason she has broken her engagement with Wexham and is not looking forward to meeting him again at the formal reception in the Cosgrave estate, where the pacts with the Elf kingdom will be renewed. Other concerns will however claim Cassandra’s attention – among them an unseasonable and strangely intense snowfall that all but forces the guests to stay indoors – and she will be compelled to fight for her freedom without the help of the magic that until recently was her second nature.
I read the story in one sitting, unable to let go of the charming atmosphere depicted by the author, one where a subtle vein of humor runs throughout the pages thanks to the upside-down social customs of this alternate version of Regency England. The verbal skirmishes, the strict adherence to conventions, the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle…) snubs exercised by the guests, all the details I expected from interactions based on this historical period were there, but artfully shifted to encompass the differences created by the premise. Here are two delightful examples:
It was a truth universally acknowledged that women were the more pragmatic sex; that was why we were expected to run the government, while the men attended to the more mystical and imaginative realm of magic.
The gentlemen, of course, were expected to remain at the table, until a maid was sent to notify them that it was safe for them to join us in the parlor, meaning that the political conversations were officially finished for the night.
Cassandra is a very enjoyable heroine, stubborn enough to want to pursue her own goals in spite of conventions, but still prone to the weaknesses of the heart, whose existence she outwardly denies only to be constantly reminded – with loving humor – by her brother and sister-in-law, two other characters I liked from the very start. And she can also be courageously strong when the time comes to face dangers or the creepy (oh, so creepy!) Elf lord who challenges her.
As a beginning to a new series, Snowspelled is a very promising one and also a departure from what this author’s previous novels led me to expect, a change of pace that I found totally enjoyable: where Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets held a darker core to their background, here the tone is lighter, more a divertissment than anything else, the kind of story that can take my mind off more serious concerns and leave me with the definite sense of having breathed some fresh, invigorating air. Something we all sorely need now and then…
I certainly will look forward to more adventures from Cassandra & friends.