Bantam Books, NY, NY 2008
The flyleaf of this book asks “What if there were a fantastical cause underlying the social constraints and limited choices confronting a heroine in a novel by Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte?” This is a first novel for Galen Becket and perhaps in attempting to answer this question she has taken on a bit too large a task.
I must admit that I am not a great fan of the literary novels of those famous women. I do not have the capacity to compare the style or the allusions of this novel to their works. I do find that in attempting to emulate this style Ms. Becket frustrates my own modern sensibilities.
Perhaps I have read too much of science fiction. I am irritated by the unexplained oddities of time and celestial mechanics that play such a large part in setting the scene for this work. I am not at all happy with the incongruities of magic and magical systems. The book hints that it is a genetic difference between men and women that also differentiates their abilities to do magic. Yet at one point in the book is the, admittedly rare, example of a man doing “women’s magic”. Our main character has a great comprehension of the magic of men but somehow is unable to form the words upon her lips.
Much like the historical novels, this book seems to take much time setting up the story before it actually gets to the action of the story. When it does occur, the resolution of the problem happens very quickly and without the detail in narrative, as though it is unimportant. This is a book of manners and style and cultural commentary rather than a story with attention to plot. The plot is there, and it has its twists and turns as any good mystery might. It is just buried under odd and often unnecessary detail.
On a positive note the characters are delightfully drawn in vivid detail. Even though they are confronted with many personal challenges, and they change to accommodate. We see those changes observed by others in that society setting rather than truly felt by the characters themselves. In some ways this reinforces the lightness of the piece. In other ways it reads to the depth and integrity of the characters themselves.
These characters are likable. The circumstances draw us into the fantasy in the way the British upper classes always have. We see ourselves in the lush apartments or struggling to make do or attempting to better ourselves as though social climbing was obligatory to such betterment. It is a world apart, and therefore fascinating. I believe it would still be so without the odd celestial physics and awkward magical system.
The book was readable enough that I am curious to see where the sequel heads. I would like to hope that the writing style improves with practice and experience. I can wish that the next book will depend on this first for the character exposition and much of that will be left behind in favor of the actual story.
This is not a book I would rush to read. It was, however, a nice distraction for a time when there was “nothing to read in the house.”
For a review of the sequel see The House on Durrow Street