I received this story collection from the author, in exchange for an honest review.
It’s always a welcome surprise when Ms. Burgis so kindly asks me to read and review her new works, because I know that I will always discover delightful stories where a thread of magic is woven with one of romance that even this grumpy old curmudgeon cannot find fault with 😉 (as a matter of fact, I quite enjoy these light-hearted forays into romantic territory…)
Magic is indeed a focal theme in this collection of stories set on a parallel version of 19th Century England, one where this element is commonplace, as in Ms. Burgis’ equally engaging Harwood Spellbook series, but with the difference that here magic is not an integral part of society: anyone caught with such abilities or marked as “unnatural” is either ostracized or wiped out, depending on the mood of the neighborhood.
Young Mia, the main character, is an inventor with a special knack for metal to which she can apply her peculiar kind of magic, but her skills have already exacted a heavy toll when her former fellow citizens discovered her true nature and turned against her and her father, burning their home to the ground and grievously wounding the man. Now that the two of them have found a new place to live, Mia is firmly set in keeping her abilities well hidden, but she did not take into account the persistence of her next-door neighbor, necromancer Leander, whose misshapen undead minions she keeps finding on her doorstep…
Given the shortness of the four stories that compose this collection (Good Neighbors, Deadly Courtesies, Fine Deceptions, Fierce Company) I don’t want to dwell any longer on the actual plot, which despite its light, humorous tone is also able to touch on some very serious themes like the fear of anything we perceive as different or the double standards of people in power. I can however concentrate on the character of Mia who, like many of Stephanie Burgis’ heroines, presents a captivatingly grouchy disposition on the outside that hides a generous, selfless soul ready to help those in need – be they human or otherwise. Previous events – and the consequences they visited on her father – made Mia quite wary of outside contact and a virtual recluse, which forces dashing Leander to launch a well-organized campaign to tear those barriers down and turn the two of them first into allies and then into… well, something else. And he has a lot of ground to cover because, in Mia’s own words:
I was not some fluff-headed flibbertigibbet who could be flustered by a bit of close darkness and a handsome, teasing necromancer.
While the first two stories, which are also the shorter ones in the collection, remain on the light side, the longer third and fourth deal with some quite dramatic issues concerning the frame of mind of the so-called “good citizens” of a nearby town (I always shudder whenever the word “purity” is used as it is in this instance) and Leander’s harrowing past. There is clearly a thematic progression here that moves from the introductory stories where the characters are presented, to the more complex, more layered study of the world they live in, a world in which “normal” people feel threatened by supernatural creatures for no other reason that they are different – and no matter how much fanciful humor is laced throughout the story, there are several thought-provoking issues here that belie the apparent lightness of the collection.
These four short stories were previously presented on Stephanie Burgis’ Patreon between 2020 and 2021 and are now collected in a single volume that will be available from February 2nd, 2022. My hope, after reading them, is that the author will write some more to expand both on this intriguing world and on Mia and Leander’s story. I will look forward to them.