Friday, April 22, 2016

Book Review - Galen Beckett's The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent (Mrs. Quent Book 1) by Galen Beckett
Published by: Spectra
Publication Date: July 29th, 2008
Format: Hardcover, 512 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

The three Lockwell sisters, Ivy, Rose, and Lily are trying to hold onto the threads of their gentile lives. But it is hard when none of them stand a chance of making a good match due to their penury. Meanwhile their home is entailed upon the death of their mother to an odious cousin and their father had an accident years ago that left him basically an invalid. Though the eldest daughter, Ivy, holds out hope. Her father was a great magician and she believes his madness must therefore be rooted in the work that he loved. It only stands to reason that if she were to find the cause then he can be returned to them whole. Once their father is back everything else will work itself out. Yet women can't work magic and Ivy's social circle is very small, so how to meet a magician? Oddly enough her odious cousin will provide an introduction to someone who might just help. Dashton Rafferdy has spent the majority of his life wasting it away at parties and dinners and balls being the wittiest one there, much to his father's dismay. Lord Rafferdy has long told his son that life is more than what Dashton currently makes of it and he is about to learn the startling truth of this statement when he finds out he is a magician.

Thrown together by chance, Ivy and Dashton forge an immediate connection that could solve many problems while creating many others, but the fate that brought them together is a cruel mistress and she soon rends them asunder. Ivy's mother drops dead and what little savings Ivy had set aside are decimated by hidden bills. Living on the sufferance of their cousin who immediately took possession of their house, Ivy's goal is to take a job as a governess in order to save enough to reopen their old home on Durrow Street and relocate her family there. Moving out of Invarnel for Heathcrest Hall Ivy's world is expanded beyond what she has ever known. She thought she was smart and well informed, in fact the perfect person to be a governess, but as she takes up the care of Mr. Quent's two young cousins she realizes that there is so much she never knew. All of Altania is in danger. It isn't just the disparity between classes causing unrest, but highwaymen fomenting revolt involving the darkest of magics. While closer to home Ivy learns of magicians planning the most dangerous of acts. Will Altania be able to survive the very ground beneath their feet rising up? And will they owe their survival to one whom they never would have expected?

When The Magicians and Mrs. Quent came out I had been spending four years trying to find a book as magical as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. They were fruitless years of toil. One day I walked into my local Borders and they had this new book by the unknown Galen Beckett featured in the science fiction section with a little card underneath handwritten by one of the employees saying it was recommended for fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Looking at The Magicians and Mrs. Quent I had such hope that I didn't want the standard trade paperback release but I wanted it in hardcover. Luckily the Science Fiction Book Club had a hardcover copy which I ordered and promptly shelved, where it sat for eight years waiting for me to read it. I was worried. Maybe I had built up my hopes too high and nothing could live up to them. Why else would I purposefully go out of my way to track down a specific edition only to leave it untouched for so long? One of the reasons I actually started Regency Magic was to get around to all these books I had bought in the hope that they were a fraction as good as anything written by Susanna Clarke. I have been surprised time and time again by how different all these authors approached the same idea creating such remarkable and varied books. And The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is easily one of the remarkable ones. It's high fantasy worthy of George R. R. Martin combined with the Gothic lure of Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw with the manners of Austen and the back alleys of Dickens. I very quickly fell in love.

While no one featured during this year's Regency Magic could beat Beth Deitchman for being the most Austen of the bunch, what with her books being continuations of Austen's own work, but Galen Beckett comes in a close second. The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is like seeing your favorite Austen characters in a new setting with them all interacting despite which book they appear in. I don't know if anyone reading this has watched Dickensian, but the conceit behind it is that instead of each book Dickens wrote existing in it's own individual world all his books were in the same world so therefore all his characters could co-mingle. The series started with Inspector Buckett from Bleak House investigating the murder of Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, and it went on from there making merry havoc with Dickens's work but somehow being appealing in that way like setting out your Dickens Village is at Christmas and thinking about how all the stories would overlap. All of Galen Beckett's characters owe a debt of gratitude to the characters that came before. The Lockwell Sisters have more than a dash of the Dashwoods. While their odious cousin owed much to Mr. Collins. As for Dashton Rafferdy, he kind of combines the best of the rakes. And when Rafferdy is hanging out with his best friend Garritt they could easily be a Darcy and Bingley double act, but more flashbacks to their college days what with all the drinking. But while they all have an echo of these previously beloved characters at the same time they are 100% their own.

Looking at other people's reviews one of the things that I notice people took issue with was in this three part book one of the parts switches from third person to first person narration. This was a ballsy move on Galen Beckett's part to shake up the middle of the book. It could either work or it could fail and give the whole work a pretentious vibe like the author was trying to be clever; and yes, I'm looking at you John Scalzi with your Redshirts codas! I of course don't agree with the many, surprise surprise, and perhaps for the first time ever think that this moved paid of entirely. And it paid off for many reasons. Most importantly the second part is when Ivy leaves Invarnel and is a governess at Heathcrest Hall. This section of the book is mimicking both Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw, two famous books who used first person narration. Therefore to get the vibe right this section needed to be written in a similar style. Gothic books cry out for that intimate writing and therefore I think it was needed. This also let us forge a stronger connection to Ivy and actually get inside her head. This didn't just help us bond with the book but it helped us have more of a vested interest in the characters by feeling what she felt. But I don't think the full impact of Galen Beckett's choice was felt until Ivy returned to Invarnel and was thrust back into the comedy of manners that is the high society taken straight from the pages of Austen. Before we reveled in these little party scenes but now we see the triviality of it all. These people are entirely unaware of what is at stake and completely blinded to the danger that is coming. By seeing through Ivy's eyes our eyes were opened to the bigger picture and now we can't understand how we ever related to these insipid people who just don't get it.

Another aspect of the book I was surprised people took issue with was the worldbuilding. Personally, I loved it. This is a very different yet parallel world to ours. What I connected to most was the way in which day and night formed this society. The way the planets work in this world is far different from ours, and I'm guessing more than a little irregular which I hope we'll sink our teeth into in the later volumes. Here in our world after the winter equinox we gain a few minutes of sun every day until the summer equinox where we lose a few minutes of sun every day, unless you live at the equator and then it's twelve hours of light and twelve hours of dark everyday, year round. Whenever I think of the shifting of day and night I think of that line I love in the Doctor Who episode "A Christmas Carol" that refers to the winter equinox as being "half-way through the dark." But enough about Doctor Who, in this world night and day are all over the place. Lumenal is the time of daylight while Umbral is the time of night. There are long Lumenals and short and middling, there are long Umbrals of twenty-two hours of darkness. Sometimes you are waking when it's full dark and other times you sleep very little because the light will return so soon. I find it fascinating that instead of sticking to a strict clock of waking up and going to bed at the same time no matter what lightness or darkness the sky possesses that their schedules are far more fluid. Despite the strictures of society they are willing to be more indulgent when it comes to their circadian rhythms and I find this interesting. While I wouldn't want to live in this world of inconstancy and the dire need for an almanac, I like reading about how it effects these characters.

Of course I've written a rather wordy review by this point and have barely mentioned the magic. Seeing as this is Regency Magic perhaps I should get around to it? The magic in this world is clearly divided by the sexes and I could go into talking about what these two halves, the witches and the magicians, have and don't have, but instead I'm going to talk about where the magic resides, because this is what speaks to me. The danger and the magic in Altania comes from the forests and the darkness. The most basic of human fears come from where danger could be found. Stories and folktales sprung out of these innate fears, fears of the forest and the dark. The fact that the magic is found in this world where our fears are born just fascinates me. I took a forestry class years ago in undergrad where I wrote a paper on the depiction of forests in Twin Peaks drawing on myths and legends and how evil was thought to reside there. We have a primal fear of forests and what if it's with very good reason? What if all our worst nightmares were real? What it there really was something in the dark to be scared of? What if the evil that resides in these places is magical and far more dangerous than we could ever expect? Unlike some of the other magical systems that I've read about this one seems somehow more viable to me. It speaks to the idea of what you can achieve if you could only embrace your fears. I can't wait to embrace the next volume of this series to see what happens next and if it will scare me.


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