Friday, April 1, 2016

Book Review - Beth Deitchman's Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven

Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven (Regency Magic Book 1) by Beth Deitchman
Published by: Luminous Creatures Press
Publication Date: August 13th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 224 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Mary Bennet never thought that she would be the type of girl to pick up The Mysteries of Udolpho instead of Fordyce's Sermons, yet here she is spending another night in with her parents secretly following the adventures of Emily St. Aubert. It all happened innocently enough; Wickham, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with his new family bought the racy book for Mary. Mary thought it would be churlish not to read the book, it was a present after all. The last remaining Bennet sister at Longbourn had her heart and her eyes opened for the first time and even fancied herself a bit in love with the man who changed the world for her. Though Mary knew she didn't really love her brother-in-law, she was just lonely and grateful. Her ravenous appetite for literature was easy enough to disguise from her parents, they never looked at what she was reading so they assumed that the content hadn't changed from "improving" texts. But Mary was changing, becoming quieter, more introspective. Though the arrival of another book is about to change her world for a second time. One night Mary receives a package, she expects it to be her long awaited copy of A Sicilian Romance, instead it is An Introductory Guide to the Sorcerer's Craft: a Brief History and Simple Spells for the Novice, written by Mr. A.H..

Could magic be real? If this book is any indication then it is! That night Mary secrets herself in her room and starts to read this book she received by mistake. It isn't long before she's devoured the book and actually mastered all it's spells. Her previous longing for books is now turned to a longing for magic books. If this book showed her how to move objects, what else could she learn? Though how to go about finding such books... There are stores mentioned in her book and even famous covens, like the Bloomsbury Coven, but they are nowhere near Hertfordshire. Luckily Mary is soon to spend time in London with her sister Lizzy and her husband Mr. Darcy. Sneaking away one day to a market she meets Mr. Hartbustle of Hartbustle and Son, purveyors if books large and small. Purveyors of magic books! She is soon invited to a meeting of the famous Bloomsbury Coven and learns that magic isn't just about amusing herself at balls but about stopping bad people, like the Glastonbury Sorcerer. Though could the coven be using her and hiding the truth about the Glastonbury Sorcerer? She will find out soon enough when she comes face to face with the enemy of the coven and learns who her true allies are.

Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven is unique in the Regency Magic books that I have read, and not just in the fact that it's felicitously part of a series called "Regency Magic." This book is unique in that unlike the other authors who took their inspiration from Jane Austen this book actually deals with characters from Austen. Now I'm not one to like continuations of Austen generally. She had such a unique voice that to try and mimic her tone is welcoming failure. Plus each of her six books ends perfectly, why should we want or need more? But that is human nature, we can't get enough of a good thing, hence the massively successful industry of just cranking out more and more continuations and prequels and what have you. I'm fine with read-alikes, but seriously, this is a pastiche subgenre that I avoid. Which brings me to Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven. While this book could fit the loose definition of this subgenre because it's a continuation, it systematically breaks all the conventions that make me dislike those other books. And it's not just the magic, it's that Beth Deitchman writes smart. She stays clear of those characters most loved in the canon and gives us new and startling insight into Mary Bennet, that most maligned of characters after Mr. Collins.

Which brings me to the Mary Bennet factor. The truth is we have all at some time or other sadly related to Mary Bennet. Yes, in reading Pride and Prejudice we like to imagine ourselves as Jane or Lizzy, in fact when watching the Colin Firth miniseries I like to shut my eyes and pretend he's talking to me, but deep down, we fear we are really Mary. Therefore, despite initial appearances, Mary is the most relatable of characters. She's awkward and outspoken at the most inopportune moments. In fact, doesn't she, just secretly between you and me, remind yourself of how you were in high school? You haven't quite found your footing and you're totally committed to your opinions no matter how many times people tell you you're wrong and you're just totally awkward. Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven gives us some insight as to why exactly she was this way, how she was no one's favorite and all her opinions and readings from Fordyce's Sermons and her pianoforte playing was just a cry for help. I mean how teenage is that? But it's Mary's growth that is where this book shines. Through her reading she has developed self-reflection and depth. Look to how she's improved in playing the pianoforte. Before she had technical ability, but technical ability can only get you so far. You need emotion to give your music passion. That is what reading has given her, empathy and drive. 

What struck me about these initial changes in Mary is that she started to become a little like one of Jane Austen's other heroines, Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey. Yes, it is a bit because of the love of the lurid Gothic novel, but more than that there's an initial silliness to how Mary uses her magic before she learns of the greater dangers and ramifications in the world and is forced to grow up. The scene at the Darcy's ball in London wherein she entertains herself by causing a calamity is pure silliness. She loves her magic just for the fun of it all. There's this joyous air that Mary has that is similar to what you feel when you finally find something that is so right, that's so you, that you are overwhelmed by actually finding your place in the world and the joy comes burbling out. This changes as time goes on, but Mary still retains that feeling of finally getting it. The joy that Beth Deitchman brings forth in her manipulating the original text reminds me of when I recently saw Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I of course tried to read the book being a true Janeite, but just couldn't stand it. The movie though wasn't into self-reflection, it was just pure fun and the genius that is Matt Smith. While Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven does have depth, it has that same entertainment value that I found unexpectedly at the movies and was so happy to find again between the covers of this book.

As for the worldbuilding, that magic that's overlaid onto the work of Austen, it's handled wonderfully. While Beth Deitchman claims inspiration from the world of Harry Potter, I actually found it very much refreshingly her own. I loved the concept that spells could eschew the ancient and long dead languages and it was simplicity and intent that make spells work. Think how much trouble Ash would have avoided in the Evil Dead franchise if this had been the case! Or how fast Giles could have gotten work done banishing demons on Buffy the Vampire Slayer if clarity was what mattered. Though what really peaked my interest was the extracts from the magical texts peppered throughout the book. Going back to Harry Potter, yes, J.K. Rowling did write two of the Hogwarts textbooks and release them for charity, but being taken out of context they just didn't quite work. They fell horribly flat in fact. By incorporating extracts in this book there's a symbiotic relationship that happens wherein they make each other better, stronger, more real. You feel the joy Mary feels each time she finds a new spell or a new section of a book catches her interest. Not only does it add depth and reality to this world, but it makes you a part of Mary's journey, and what could be better than that?

In the end what really grounded and polished the text were the parallels to Pride and Prejudice that through Mary's journey were just as shocking and surprising as the first time you read Austen. I am of course talking about the duplicity of man and how they are two-faced and power hungry. Could anyone reading Pride and Prejudice the first time think Wickham as such a scoundrel? No! Yes, he might be too good to be true, but you still believe him, you still think that Darcy is the villain of the tale until you know better. While Mary doesn't suffer an exactly similar fate, between the Bloomsbury Coven and the Glastonbury Sorcerer she is placed in a situation of who to believe. Does she trust appearances, stories, feelings? When you are being manipulated where do you turn? But much like her sister Lizzy, she stumbles through and accepts the truth, the real truth. And if she just happens to find a little happiness at the end of a long fought battle between appearance and truth? Well, wouldn't Jane Austen herself be pleased?


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