Friday, April 6, 2018

Book Review - Kelly Jones's Murder, Magic and What We Wore

Murder, Magic and What We Wore by Kelly Jones
Published by: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 19th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Miss Annis Whitworth has spent the majority of her life reading gossip columns and advising her friends on what to wear. Her only worries have been the strain her Aunt Cassia is putting on the postal service with her voluminous correspondence and when she might see her father again because he is almost constantly abroad for work. When her father's man of business, Mr. Harrington, arrives one day a rather cryptic greeting reveals that Annis will never see her father again, he has died and left his daughter and his sister destitute. They were completely dependent on his military half-pay and now have nothing, not even his silver pocket watch with his wife's portrait was recovered, only two handkerchiefs which Annis embroidered for his birthday. That watch is an item which could come in handy what with their scarcity of funds, as could access to her father's overseas accounts. Cassia though is practical and has spent her life raising Annis with very unique life lessons in an attempt to make her more self-reliant. Therefore Annis will embrace the horror of shapeless ready-made black mourning gowns and a possible life of employment. Yet Annis knew something about her father she didn't know if it was polite to mention... he was a spy. In fact the handkerchiefs recovered conceal a coded message and she knows that she needs to get them into the hands of the War Office because her father might have died for this intelligence and was possibly murdered for it.

Though Annis shudders to be seen in the black bombazine! Therefore a little tailoring prior to visiting the War Office is necessary... tailoring that her new maid, Millicent O'Leary, points out is actually magic! The best seamstress can't change bombazine to brocade! This gives Annis an idea. What if the War Office could use her skills? What if they need a glamour artist? Then her and Aunt Cassia's life needn't be completely uprooted. A "Mr. Smith" though quickly shuts down Annis's daydreams and instead she must face the bleak future that Cassia is laying out for them, including a trip to an employment agency! Annis would literally chose any future but this, even marrying a man who wears horrid waistcoats! It is Millicent who puts forth the idea of Annis becoming a dressmaker. Though Aunt Cassia and her helpful friend Miss Spencer agree that this would be beyond the pale. Annis would lose her reputation and would never recover. But what if this little experiment were done outside of London and in disguise? A new plan is formed, against Cassia's better judgment. They are to relocate to Flittingsworth, a small town between London and Dover, where Miss Spencer has her own shop, and so soon shall "Madame Martine" the glamour artist! But will Annis have the time to maintain two identities, get all Madame Martine's work done, and solve her father's murder? Perhaps with a little magic.

Murder, Magic and What We Wore is a wonderful addition to the Regency Magic genre. Somehow it complies to all the rules of the genre while simultaneously taking all the building blocks and turning them on their head. Instead of finding a worthy husband when finding herself destitute Annis finds a purpose in an occupation she excels at while sneakily maintaining that ever important reputation. While being the biggest fan of Jane Austen it is a bit depressing that every book is about putting a ring on it. That wasn't a viable option for many women and the whole point about Regency Magic is taking this framework that Austen bequeathed us and making it something more. Yet time and time again while creating this wonderful genre all the stories at the end of the day end with matrimony. As Kelly Jones herself said on my blog "I was craving a Regency fantasy that wasn't a romance. I love romance, but I also love stories about work, and family, and friendship, and responsibilities. I wanted to read about a girl who was too busy with other things to fall in love" and how little did I realize I wanted it too! While there is a possible suitor with Mr. Harrington, he's off to the side, in Annis's rear view mirror. Sure one day she might have time for him, but not right now. Now is Annis's time to shine, to show the world what she can do, not as someone's significant other, but just as herself, for the first time. And Annis is magnificent, and with Aunt Cassia and Millicent we have a comedy of manners that sometimes edges into a level of farce only Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers were capable of.

Yet the humor never detracts from this females first theme that is carried into every aspect of this book. Yes, it might be shocking for some to realize that women can be funny and kick ass at the same time but I defy them to read this book and not come to this conclusion. While being set in 1818 this book is oddly timely with the #MeToo movement. The truth of the matter is #MeToo was a long time coming. Especially in any time period where there are oppressed classes there is a chance for some scum to take advantage. Here it is a rather odious man who happens to be the nephew of a Lady Prippingforth who Millicent worked for, and his habit of taking what he wants from female staff is deplorable. Millie was thankfully spared because he locked her in a cupboard to "save for later" and was able to escape, but many many others weren't so lucky. It just so happens that he is in Flittingsworth and sees Millie and continues his reign of terror. Once Cassia hears of this she helps Millie and Annis learn how to protect themselves from such attacks. If you're a fan of the film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you know that visceral thrill seeing Lizzy Bennett kick ass. Instead of a well placed gaze to show disgust, Millie can now take him down with a well placed knife. This pro female empowerment in a time period when you don't usually think of it as such is magnificent. Get that rapist out! The truth is a timely tale can be set anywhen, so long as the message is still relevant.

At the heart of this female empowerment is Cassia. While she is very clever to maintain the outward appearance of a very respectable maiden aunt, through her charitable work and her lessons imparted to her niece you grow to love this modern woman who is able to work within the system and get it to work to her advantage. I couldn't help drawing comparisons to another strong female character in literature, that of Margaret Schlegel of Howards End. While separated by almost a hundred years with Margaret firmly in Edwardian not Georgian England they both have the same animating spirit. Here are two women who believe in expanding their minds through literature and music. They have cultural pursuits, humanitarian pursuits, they believe in thinking and speaking and saying what's on their mind while still understanding discretion. They feel deeply yet are able to keep that stiff upper lip. It's very rare to find a complete connection to a character in literature, especially one that lives in another time. You might see a shifting reflection of yourself but never fully understand them. In all Austen's canon I most connect to Elinor and Fanny, but still I have moments where I diverge. The first time I read Howards End by E.M. Forster though, it was like Margaret and I were one. Murder, Magic and What We Wore let me have that experience all over again with Cassia. Maybe I'm not one hundred percent like her, but I want to be, and having that kind of role model, perhaps Cassia can make me a better person.

While there is so much that I love about this book, from how the theme of female employment perfectly melds with the magical system to how Millie starts to channel her inner Cato Fong, there is one thing I felt was underdeveloped, and that's the villainous shenanigans that follow on the heels of the murder of Annis's father. Unlike many Regency Magic books Kelly Jones nails the history, so that isn't were my issues reside. My quibbles are that all this spycraft doesn't really stand on it's own, it's like a shaky house of cards, you try to analyze it too closely and it collapses. Napoleon is trapped on Elba, first this person on this boat is going to free him, than this other person on this other boat is, too many changes with a slew of people whose names I can not for the life of me remember from one second to the next. It's a confusing profusion of underlings. Whereas the Big Bad was too obvious. I read another review that said the villain was so irredeemably evil that they almost became a caricature. I wouldn't say it that harshly... but, that reviewer had a point. Either hide the puppet master a little more efficiently, or straighten out the ranks of his organization so that they do the heavy lifting and he can more easily hide in plain sight. I do like my Napoleonic spycraft, but the wonderful madcap infectious fun of the rest of the book isn't brought to bear on this rather important piece of the puzzle. We know the what, we know the why, we just get muddled along the way but thankfully it's handily resolved and I await another installment in Annis's adventures!


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